Federal officials in California have acknowledged that destruction of salmon freshwater habitat on the Sacramento River illegally jeopardizes killer whales. The loss of salmon habitat has greatly reduced the supply of wild salmon, a favorite food of Puget Sound’s resident killer whales. These killer whales roam as far south as Monterey Bay in California during the winter in pursuit of salmon. Puget Sound resident killer whales are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.
The finding released last week in a biological opinion from the National Marine Fisheries Service was welcomed by Northwest conservation, fishing, and killer whale advocates.
Earthjustice attorney George Torgun said, “The National Marine Fisheries Service is saying that operation of state and federal water projects in California’s Sacramento River basin deplete chinook salmon, the killer whale’s primary prey. It’s clear that harming our rivers and our salmon harms not only the salmon and coastal communities that rely on them, but also animals far and wide, reaching all the way to Washington’s killer whales.”
Salmon advocates say similar facts justify the same findings in biological opinions governing reservoir and dam operations on the Columbia and Snake rivers in Idaho, Washington and Oregon, as well as the Klamath River in California and Oregon.
NMFS’s finding for the Sacramento River stands in stark contrast to the agency’s conclusion — reached under the Bush administration — that the salmon-killing dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers do not harm Washington’s declining killer whale population.
“The recent National Marine Fisheries Service conclusion linking destruction of salmon habitat to harm to killer whales is a breath of fresh air,” said Kathy Fletcher, Executive Director of People for Puget Sound. “Our killer whales are at critically low numbers and NMFS has recognized that what we do to salmon in freshwater impacts our orcas in the ocean. But, it doesn’t make sense to protect salmon for whales to eat in California while at the same time ignoring the effect of dams on fish in the whales’ backyard.”
Conservationists and fishermen are challenging the Bush administration’s plan for the Columbia and Snake dams in a federal Court in Portland, Oregon. The federal judge hearing that case recently sent a letter to the litigants outlining his preliminary conclusion that NMFS’s 2008 plan is illegal. In his letter, U.S. District Court Judge James Redden said, “Federal defendants have spent the better part of the last decade treading water, and avoiding their obligations under the Endangered Species Act… We simply cannot afford to waste another decade… All of us know that aggressive action is necessary to save this vital resource, and now is the time to make that happen.”
The Obama administration has asked the court for 60 days to consider whether it will support the 2008 Bush plan. Tens of thousands of citizens have asked the administration to bring people together to forge durable solutions that will protect and restore salmon and salmon-dependent communities throughout the Snake and Columbia basins and along the west coast. These same actions will help protect Puget Sound’s killer whale population.
“The fiction that the dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers have no effect on the food supply for orcas is one of many failings in the Columbia and Snake River biological opinion,” said Steve Mashuda of Earthjustice, which represents the groups in the case. “Our killer whales shouldn’t have to travel all the way to Monterey Bay to find a decent meal.”
Mashuda is optimistic that the Obama administration’s current review of the Columbia-Snake biological opinion will result in findings consistent with those reached for the Sacramento River. “We need the Obama administration to ensure that the Columbia River, the largest salmon-producing river in the lower 48 states, can help feed the whales, too.”
The recent California salmon biological opinion also differs markedly from the Bush administration Columbia opinion in the way it views the role artificially propagated salmon from hatcheries play in supplying a secure food source for killer whales. Both rivers have major salmon hatcheries. The Bush administration presumed the loss of wild salmon stocks could be offset by supplying killer whales with hatchery fish in the Columbia Basin. But the new California opinion finds that hatchery fish can have harmful effects on the long-term fitness of salmon populations, and that current hatchery practices at some hatcheries are diminishing the long-term viability of salmon stocks. These impacts will also harm killer whales.