Photo Credit: Mike Doherty
“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” – John Muir
The renowned naturalist understood that the ecosystem is a vast and intricate web of connections. If he were alive today, he would not be surprised to find that the Southern Resident Orca population in the Pacific Northwest is slowly starving. Because critical connections have been severed. Nature’s web is frayed and tattered.
Orca numbers trend ever downward. Only 74 Southern Residents remain, down from the 88 that existed when the population was first listed under the Endangered Species Act in 2005.
The National Marine Fisheries Service has deemed the Southern Resident Orca pod “a species whose extinction is almost certain in the immediate future because of a rapid population decline or habitat destruction.”
If the status quo continues, we could witness the extirpation of this unique population of whales that once thrived as it followed fish from Southeast Alaska to San Francisco. This diminished Orca pod faces multiple threats to its survival and recovery, but the most significant factor is the staggering reduction in its primary prey — Chinook salmon. The Southern Resident Orcas have depended on abundant salmon runs in the Pacific Northwest for thousands of years. Chinook comprises most of the Southern Residents’ year-round diet, but Coho and chum salmon are also seasonally important. And they are all vanishing.
So, where did all the salmon go?
The better question may be, “where didn’t the salmon go?”
One place Chinook Salmon didn’t go is back to historic spawning habitat in the upper reaches of the Klamath River, or to any of the Oregon rivers that once teemed with returning spawners. A century ago, the Copco dam sliced the river – and the watershed – in half. Other dams followed, blocking even more of the river.
By the end of the 1960s more than 400 miles of habitat was rendered inaccessible to anadromous fish. Unsurprisingly, runs of salmon have relentlessly declined. Today, the number of Klamath River Chinook salmon has been slashed by 98 percent. Commercial harvest has collapsed. And the orcas hunt desperately for what remains of this once abundant food source.
But there is legitimate reason for hope. An epic agreement by 23 diverse parties — including the owner of the dams, the states of California and Oregon, tribes, conservation organizations, commercial fishermen and a host of others — will soon lead to the removal of all four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River. Dam removal could happen as early as January of 2023.
Concrete will be turned to rubble. Tons of earth will be moved. Tributaries will be reconnected. Cold water springs will once again feed a recovering river. A newly barren landscape, submerged for a century beneath fouled water, will be reseeded with native grasses. Trees and shrubs will be planted by the thousands. Large pieces of wood will be placed in the river and tributaries to mimic lost habitat features. Hundreds of millions of dollars will be poured into the landscape to heal the Klamath River and the countless species who depend on it. A web of connections, long disrupted, will be restored. And nature, ever resilient, will rebound.
A day is coming for the river to run cold and free, for the salmon to come home, and for the Southern Resident Orcas to begin their journey back from the edge of disaster.