Starving orcas and Snake River dams | Guest Column

by Scott Herning

for Southern Resident Killer Whale

Chinook Salmon Initiative

Recently, a contingent of San Juan Islanders joined three hundred fishermen, Native Americans, farmers, orca activists, business owners and conservationists to advocate breaching four federal dams on the lower Snake River in Southeast Washington. Canoes, kayaks, rafts and drift-boats filled the Snake River near Pullman, Washington. People came from as far away as Alabama to paddle three miles to Lower Granite Dam.  There, boaters unfurled a massive floating banner that read: “Free the Snake.”

The protesters carried signs reading: “A River of Negligible Use. – Corps of Engineers” or “Something is Happening Here…” Another sign read “More Salmon, More Orcas.”

What was going on here? How could the Snake River, the largest tributary of the Columbia River, be thought of as insignificant by our government? Together these rivers were once the greatest salmon producers on earth.

How could removing dams save orcas? Easy. The dams have been killing millions of Chinook salmon for nearly 50 years.

Chinook, one of four species of ESA-listed salmon on the Snake, is the preferred prey for the Southern Resident orcas. Starvation is a top threat facing these highly social whales. NOAA’s 2008 Recovery Plan states; “…the single greatest change in food availability for Resident Orcas since the late 1800s has been the decline of salmon from the Columbia basin.”

The Center for Biological Diversity petitioned NOAA to include these orcas as Endangered; that happened in 2005. A decade later the federal government is again being challenged, this time to revise the Southern Resident critical habitat to include coastal waters, which, of course, includes the mouth of the mighty Columbia River.

Dam hydropower mistakenly has been thought of as clean energy. That is changing. According to a University of Cincinnati biogeochemist, in 2012 a large Ohio reservoir emitted as much methane, a potent greenhouse gas, as roughly 5800 dairy cows emit over an entire year. Add this to the fact that the lower Snake dams impede access to 5500 miles of cool, climate change resistant salmon spawning and rearing streams, and you have a strong new case that hydropower from dams is indeed ‘dirty energy.’

In the past year, close to 150,000 citizens (through petitions and email campaigns) have supported breaching the four lower Snake River dams to save salmon and orcas. The issue has reached national media attention with articles appearing in National Geographic, Huffington Post, and The New York Times. Leading environmental organizations such as Endangered Species Coalition, Patagonia, Oceana and Whale and Dolphin Conservation are also on board.

Use your superpower. Call our Commander-in-Chief (202-456-1111) and Senators Murray (206-553-5545) and Cantwell (206-220-6400) to tell them we support breaching the four lower Snake River dams to save the Southern Resident orcas. We owe it to the forty-five Southern Resident orcas who were violently captured and sold to marine parks during the construction of these dams. Only one of those Southern Residents remains alive in captivity today, Tokitae, aka Lolita.

Take action at Learn more about the four lower Snake Dams at



Scott Herning is a graphic artist for the Islands’ Sounder.