Breaching the Dams

Removing the barriers to orca survival


What: Orca Recovery Task Force

When: 10 am Tue., Aug. 28

Where: Swinomish Casino and Lodge, 12885 Casino Drive, Anacortes


When: 10am Tues. Aug. 28



Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Their numbers are dwindling. More die than are born; and eventually our orcas may pass beyond all recovery.

The Southern Resident Killer Whales—a group of three family pods that fish the waters of the Salish Sea—are among the most studied animals on earth. We have identified and named each of the 75 remaining individuals of the three pods, J, K and L. We know they hunt mostly through echolocation, a process disrupted by the noise of ever-increasing marine traffic. We have catalogued a toxic cocktail of chemicals concentrated in their bodies. We know that of all the salmon, they seek out the Chinook, the largest, requiring about 30 a day to stay healthy, and they’re not finding them. We know there hasn’t been a successful birth since 2015, and we know the reason: They’re starving.

But knowing is not seeing. For the most part their struggles have been invisible, hidden underwater. Their plight, though well understood by science, hasn’t necessarily been felt by the broader public. That changed on July 24, when Tahlequah, (J35) broke the surface of Salish Sea with her dead calf draped over her snout, beginning what came to be known as the Tour of Grief.

As the world watched transfixed, whale researchers confirmed the gesture was indeed what it appeared, a mother grieving the loss of her baby, and that such events typically last a day or so.

Three days later Tahlequah was still bearing her calf through the Salish Sea. Then it was six days, then 10. In the end, with the help of her family, she carried her calf for 17 days and 1,000 miles, gathering the affections of millions of people along the way, and astounding scientists. Veteran whale researcher Ken Balcomb suggested that Tahlequah might be trying to send us a message, to communicate to us the orca’s dire situation. The lost calf was, after all, a female, a potential child-bearer and of special significance to a group on the verge of extinction. Was Tahlequah mourning the death not only of her own child, but also the dying of her kind?

We can’t know, and it doesn’t really matter. The statement is there. Tahlequah showed us what extinction looks like, and as sad as her vigil was, it was enlightening, for now we see just what sort of creatures we’re on the verge of losing.

Since 1998, 61 Southern Residents have died, while only 38 have been born and survived.

And so the question: What do we do? Maybe we do what we would for any ailing loved one. We bring them nutritious food.

“Chinook abundance is manifestly not sufficient to feed even today’s perilously low orca population,” notes Joseph Bogaard, Save Our wild Salmon Coalition. “Starving whales don’t lie. At best, hatcheries may be helping to keep an already inadequate food supply from getting significantly worse, but they are not meeting the orcas’ nutritional needs.”

In the case of Tahlequah and her relatives, that means freeing a river. In particular the lower Snake River, where four concrete dams prevent this ancient lifeline of the Salish Sea from delivering its medicine: big, fat, Chinook salmon.

The Snake River, a major tributary to the Columbia, was once one of the most productive salmon habitats in the world. Shaped like a ladle, it cups the eastward bulge of the Rocky Mountains in Montana and Idaho, gathering vast flows of cool, mineral laden water and sending it, along with drainage from the Columbian plateau, northwest through Hells Canyon and across the loess of Washington, before emptying into the Columbia.

As late as the 1930s, even after dams had been built on the upper reaches, fall runs of half a million Chinook were still pouring toward the Columbia. But by 1990, after a total of 14 dams had been laid across the river, only 78 salmon made it as far as Lower Granite Dam, the fourth dam in the chain. It’s this dam, and the three behind it, that hold the key to the river’s recovery and the orca’s future. Above them lies a rich and intricate watershed of prime Chinook spawning streams, large enough to actually deliver a meaningful amount of Chinook to the orca, enough perhaps to fatten them up so they can successfully raise some babies, their only hope for survival.

Today, only about 1 percent of the historic number of fish return. More than 200 large dams on the basin’s rivers are the major cause of its salmon extinction crisis, with 13 populations now listed under the Endangered Species Act. Yet the Columbia-Snake Basin still holds more acres of wild land and miles of wild river than any watershed in the lower 48 states. It is this opportunity for salmon and steelhead recovery that we offer the last best hope for a substantial increase in prey availability for Southern Resident killer whales during the critical winter months.

For 20 years conservationists have been calling on the Army Corps of Engineers, which owns and operates the dams, to breach them and restore the lower Snake River. And for 20 years, the Army Corps has resisted. Even worse, a coterie of Northwest lawmakers have introduced and passed legislation through the U.S. House that attempts to legally cement the dams in place, and prevent restoring the Snake. They do this even though these dams no longer serve their original purpose, which was to get inland agricultural products to coastal ports and markets. That can be done just as easily by the trains running along the river. As for electricity, a recent study concludes combined output of the four dams could be produced as cheaply, or more so, by a mix of renewables.

We also know that dam breaching works. When the two hydroelectric dams crossing the Elwah River on the Olympic Peninsula were successfully removed in 2014, wild salmon returned almost immediately, appearing as if out of nowhere, in numbers far exceeding scientific projections.

Remarkably, the federal government agrees this is the best option for the salmon and has said so. In its 2000 plan, NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service agreed, “Breaching the four Lower Snake River dams would provide more certainty of long-term survival and recovery than would other measures.”

Since there are no practical impediments to removing these dams, we see that the real holdup is bureaucratic, and political. It’s administrative inertia and turf protection; and it’s moneyed interests and an increasingly hardened stance against the natural world.

But all that was before Tahlequah’s journey. Now the emotional, even moral landscape has been altered in some significant way.

Next week, the governor’s Killer Whale Recovery Task Force gathers in Anacortes for its second-to-last meeting. Will the task force members be emboldened and put dam removal front and center of their recommendations?

“The recommendations from the task to the governor must be bold,” Bogaard said. “They must break away from the types of actions and strategies that have brought to where we are today. Doubling down on business as usual will fail orca and our state and region. Big changes are needed.”

On Sept. 7, a massive flotilla will gather outside Clarkston, Wash., bringing people together from all over the region to demand removal of the four lower snake river dams. Of special significance, this year’s flotilla will be Indigenous-led, with canoe families from sovereign tribes across the Northwest.

One cannot image a better way to honor this moment and gather the human will around both orca and salmon.

For me, what Tahlequah did touched on mythic. It was as if for 17 days the meanness of the present political moment was transcended by an enormity of love and grief we had no idea existed.  How do we answer her odyssey but by doing something big and courageous ourselves? How else but by freeing her a river?

For additional information, visit Save Our wild Salmon Coalition,

Sugar Ray
More News...
Cold Comfort
Shelters near capacity as polar storm continues

A continued polar storm front has scrambled resources to provide severe weather housing for the unsheltered.

Mayor Kelli Linville signed a proclamation on Monday that an emergency exists throughout the City of Bellingham and authorized the city to provide emergency assistance to the…

more »
Alley Without Allies
Stateside project moves forward

North State Street neighborhood is bracing for impact.

The city just gave the greenlight for a seven-story student apartment complex that will cover an entire city block near the roundabout to Fairhaven. “Stateside” will be the tallest development built downtown since the…

more »
No Sale
Family dispute puts JCPenney redevelopment on layaway

When people with an interest in downtown Bellingham think of the old JCPenney building at 1314 Cornwall Ave., a lot of words come to mind—and not many of them are good. For one, it’s the definition of a white elephant: oversized, expensive and useless. “Eyesore” and “blight”…

more »
Cascadia Weekly's Fiction 101 Contest


A Forest of Words Poetry Competition

11:30am|Whatcom County

The Imaginary Invalid

7:30pm|DUG Theater

Birding Adventures

9:00am|Skagit Valley

My Circus Valentine

6:00pm|Cirque Lab

Almost, Maine

7:30pm|Bellingham Theatre Guild

Cupid's Arrow

7:30pm|Upfront Theatre

Shakespeare in Love

7:30pm|Anacortes Community Theatre

West Side Story

7:30pm|Lincoln Theatre

Our Town

7:30pm|Claire vg Thomas Theatre

No PDA allowed


Deep Forest Experience

11:00am|Rockport State Park

One-Act Plays at BAAY

7:00pm|BAAY Theatre

Always...Patsy Cline

7:00pm|Conway Muse

Serial Killers, Episode 3

7:30pm|Sylvia Center for the Arts

Winter Swanrise Valentine's Celebration

7:00am|Barney Lake

Pancake Breakfast

8:00am|Ferndale Senior Center

Celtic Arts Dance Championship

9:00am|Whatcom Community College

Caring for your Roses

9:00am|Garden Spot Nursery

Winter Farmers Market

10:00am|Depot Market Square

Be Mindful of Minds Panel Discussion

10:00am|Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship

Correspondence Club

10:30am|Mindport Exhibits

Let's Make Mozzarella and Burrata!

11:00am|Community Food Co-op

Growing Giant Vegetables

11:00am|Christianson's Nursery

Deep Forest Experience

11:00am|Rockport State Park

Tax Help Available

12:30pm|First Congregational Church

Native Plants and Birds

2:00pm|Lynden Library

Era of the Megafires

2:00pm|Ferndale Library

Love is in the Air Story Share

3:00pm|North Fork Library

Artist Talk with Margy Lavelle

4:00pm|i.e. gallery

Fighter in Velvet Gloves

7:00pm|Village Books

Los Vivancos presents "Born to Dance"

7:30pm|Mount Baker Theatre

Cascadia Weekly Subscribe Ad 1
Birding Adventures

9:00am|Skagit Valley

My Circus Valentine

6:00pm|Cirque Lab

Shakespeare in Love

7:30pm|Anacortes Community Theatre

Our Town

7:30pm|Claire vg Thomas Theatre

West Side Story

7:30pm|Lincoln Theatre

Almost, Maine

7:30pm|Bellingham Theatre Guild

Deep Forest Experience

11:00am|Rockport State Park

One-Act Plays at BAAY

7:00pm|BAAY Theatre

Deep Forest Experience

11:00am|Rockport State Park

Sedro-Woolley Breakfast

8:00am|American Legion Post #43

Rabbit Ride

8:30am|Fairhaven Bicycle

Langar in Lynden

11:00am| Guru Nanak Gursikh Gurdwara

Deep Forest Experience

11:00am|Rockport State Park

Do It Yourself Publishing

12:00pm|BRUNA Press

History Tour

12:30pm|Whatcom Museum's Old City Hall

Bellingham's Got Talent

1:00pm|Mount Baker Theatre

Girsky Quartet

3:00pm|First Congregational Church

Blue Water women

4:00pm|Village Books

Sprite Night

7:00pm|Upfront Theatre

Cascadia Weekly Subscribe Ad 1 MacMaster and Leahy
Deep Forest Experience

11:00am|Rockport State Park

Deep Forest Experience

11:00am|Rockport State Park

Community Soup Kitchen

6:00pm|Little Cheerful Cafe

Bite of Blaine

6:00pm|Semiahmoo Resort

Seasonal Fermentation

6:30pm|Community Food Co-op


7:00pm|Alternative Library


9:00pm|Firefly Lounge

see our complete calendar »

Trove Web Cascadia Weekly Subscribe Ad 1 MacMaster and Leahy Kinky Boots Village Books