Southern Resident Killer Whales Off Northwestern Coast Of U.S. Are Starving To Death

Moms and babies are dying at alarming rates off the Northwestern coast of the U.S.

Credit: NOAA Fisheries

It may come as no surprise that killer whales are dying at alarming rates due to man-made structures that are virtually unnecessary. The structures are the four dams on the lower Snake River that have disrupted the entire surrounding ecosystem since they went up decades ago. Because of the dams, Chinook salmon are unable to move past the barriers into the greater part of their spawning habit to continue their normal rate of reproduction.

Over time, this has caused a serious decrease in the number of Chinook salmon available in the region, which is what the southern resident killer whales rely on. In an area that used to boast 10 to 16 million salmon returning every year to spawn now only has about 1% of that amount returning annually. 

The orcas have already faced trauma in their time when in 1970 approximately 80 whales from this group were rounded up in local waters. Staff from U.S. aquariums descended on the whales and took 37 of them for their facilities while another 11 orcas died from the netting process. Now their population sits at only 80.

The rate at which these orcas has been dying is shocking to say the least. In the past 11 years, 37 of the native whales have died in the wild while only 21 were born; this leaves the death to birth ratio at nearly 2 to 1. In 2016 alone, four of the whales were confirmed dead, two of which were described as looking weak and almost emaciated in the days and weeks before their deaths. Two of the dead orcas were babies, one was only a year old and another was just a few days old.

Credit: Go Skagit

Mothers and calves are often most affected by these food shortages because of their overwhelming need to intake extra calories. Calves eat excessively so that they can grow into healthy adults and mothers use a lot of energy just for lactating, meaning they need to take in more salmon each day. This is especially difficult on the species because it is these calves that are to continue the growing population, but their premature deaths are evidence of a coming extinction.

Advocates for the killer whales have devised plans for how and why the dams should be removed in a way that benefits everyone. Shipping in the area, which is the reason the dams were built in the first place, is down to just 18 percent of what it was when the dams went up and could easily be allocated elsewhere. Since there is a train that runs alongside the river, shipments could travel that way instead.

As for energy production, there is no way to store excess energy created by the busy springtime river anyways and alternative methods of energy should be explored. Since these are earthen berm dams, the structures could be removed in just a few weeks, meaning there would be only a small ecological impact on the river for the removal process. The positive benefits for the orcas and the entire ecosystem would far outweigh any damage done in a few weeks.

As more orcas continue to starve to death, these options are more seriously considered. Drafts are being drawn up, and a judge recently suggested that future drafts should include plans to remove one or more of the dams. If you want to help with this dire situation, you can urge the White House to expedite removal of the dams.

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