Salmon and orcas: Washington considers breaching Lower Snake River dams

A draft report from Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s office summarizes a long-running debate over whether four hydroelectric dams on the Lower Snake River should be taken down to restore king and other salmon populations.

The report issued Dec. 20 makes no recommendations — except for ways that multiple groups involved in the debate, including fishermen, indigenous tribes, power producers and renewable energy advocates — might move the long-deadlocked debate forward.

The report came a year after the state Southern Orca Task Force recommended increasing king salmon numbers as the most important step toward recovering the diminished orca population of southern Puget Sound.

The Ice Harbor Dam on the lower Snake River. Corps of Engineers photo.

The Ice Harbor Dam on the lower Snake River. Corps of Engineers photo.

The task force made other recommendations, including reducing vessel disturbance and noise and reducing the whales’ exposure to toxic contaminants. But it stopped short of calling for action on the Lower Snake River dams, blamed by some coastal stakeholders for the decline of king salmon.

The subsequent $750,000 study ordered by Inslee aims to bring together the divergent interest groups. A first public workshop on the report is scheduled for Tuesday evening in Clarkston, followed by a Jan. 9 session in Vancouver, Wash., and Jan. 13 in Pasco. Online comments will be accepted through Jan. 24.

“I encourage Washingtonians to get engaged in the public comment period over the next month and share their input on what should be done,” Inslee said in releasing the report. “We need to hear from a variety of people from different regions and perspectives.”

The report notes how all parties remain far apart on the issues.

“People told us that the manner in which the issue of dam removal is raised contributes to the overall frustration and negative reaction of those who live in southeastern Washington and are closest to the dams,” the report authors wrote, adding that dam supporters felt eastern Washington coastal stakeholders belittle their legitimate concerns.

While the southern orca population is in decline, northern resident orcas are thriving and in fact may be driving a decline in large salmon, according to a study by University of Washington and NOAA researchers published Dec. 16 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The team analyzed 40 years of data and found that as fishing pressure diminished by stricter regulation since the 1970s, the northern resident killer whales tripled their abundance.

The whales’ preference for larger salmon may be a major factor behind the decline of larger king salmon — and may also be intercepting more salmon before they reach the critically endangered southern population, now around 73 animals, the study suggests.

About the author

Kirk Moore

Associate Editor Kirk Moore was a reporter for the Asbury Park Press for over 30 years before joining WorkBoat in 2015. He wrote several award-winning stories on marine, environmental, coastal and military issues that helped drive federal and state government policy changes. He has also been a field editor for WorkBoat’s sister publication, National Fisherman, for almost 25 years. Moore was awarded the Online News Association 2011 Knight Award for Public Service for the “Barnegat Bay Under Stress,” 2010 series that led to the New Jersey state government’s restoration plan. He lives in West Creek, N.J.

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