Can a Fish Save a Whale?

Credit Michael Gäbler

I have been watching Cosmos a lot. It’s got wide appeal in my house — children and adults are equally enchanted. Cosmos reminds me of our connection to all living things — all of us born of stardust. I hadn’t thought about that in a long time.

Most of us don’t dwell on the mysteries of the universe, but they matter. Our interconnectedness, in particular, matters for people — and for wildlife out there in those wild places. Some species are more linked than others. In Malcolm Gladwell’s world, we’d call them “connectors.” In science, they’re called “keystone species.” These animals, and even some plants, have a large impact on the creatures surrounding them — so large that the habitat would be fundamentally different without them.

Salmon are amazing connectors; they connect to more than 190 plants and animals. So when salmon go missing, it’s like the life of the party has suddenly disappeared — everyone feels it. It may not surprise you to learn that salmon are an important food for orcas, sharks, sea lions, seals, otters, and bears.

Credit NOAA

But did you know that birds, amphibians, and even insects consume salmon carcasses and eggs? Salmon are so connected that they benefit plants, even vineyard grapes.

How, you ask? It’s all about their journey.

Pacific salmon are marathon swimmers — beginning in the briskly cold freshwaters of the Snake, Klamath, and Sacramento Rivers, and other rivers and their tributaries. From these rivers, they spill into the open expanse of the Pacific Ocean. Some go on to swim all the way to Japan.

Near the top of the food chain, salmon eat and absorb nitrogen from creatures unlucky enough to be lunch. The nitrogen in these ocean-dwelling animals is unique. Scientists call it “marine-derived nitrogen,” or (MDN for the techies at heart). And when salmon swim all the way back to our roaring rivers of the West, scientists can track the impact of salmon by this special marker — the MDN — in other animals and plants.

Credit NOAA

When a salmon dies, that marker works its way through the habitat — from the colossal grizzly to the little bug. Bears and wolves fish the salmon out. They carry the carcasses further upstream. Parts of the carcasses are often left behind for other animals and insects to scavenge. The animals that eat salmon also then do what animals do in the woods… and, as a result, this nitrogen gets absorbed by the soil and works its way into algae, mosses, herbs, shrubs, and the royalty of plants — ancient trees.

Scientists are discovering remarkable things. When more salmon reach their spawning grounds, the MDN, not surprisingly, gets more widely dispersed into the watershed. This, in turn, creates wild places that are healthier and more diverse — more bugs, more birds, more plants. And playing the role of Sherlock Holmes, scientists can track the impact of MDN from tree core samples to an otter’s whiskers.

But many salmon are becoming an endangered species. What happens when salmon disappear from these ecosystems and the ocean? Very bad things. Just ask the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales or orcas (Orcinus orca), which live in Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean from Southeast Alaska to California. These whales are going hungry, and the impacts mean life or death for individuals and for the population as a whole.

Hungry, Hungry Whales

I admit that I’m totally charmed by orcas. But I know I’m not alone. What is it about those glossy black and white creatures? Do we see in them a reflection of us? Is our bond with orcas more apparent than with other animals?

Credit NOAA

I guess it doesn’t hurt that orcas are essentially big dolphins — very big (think of the difference between a smart car and two tractor-trailers). Orcas are social creatures, interacting with each other in complex and fascinating ways. And just as with dolphins, people report uncanny stories of connecting and interrelating with them.

Not surprisingly, American Indian and First Nation tribes revere orcas. And it seems that every camera- and cell phone-toting eco-tourist on the West Coast can’t get enough of them — they’re practically celebrities. More than 400,000 people went whale watching in the waters off Washington State and British Columbia in 2014 alone.

Orcas can be found in oceans across the world. Though they’re beloved, the orcas that live off our U.S. Pacific coastline — the Southern Resident Killer Whales — are endangered. How can that be? Good question…

These particular whales are part of one big clan living in three pods: J, K, and L. They organize their society along matrilineal lines. Yep, each family centers on mom — or more often, on the pod’s grandmother or great-grandmother. (In fact, J Pod’s granny is estimated to be 104 years old.)

They also talk — and each pod has a unique language. Just as we can tell the difference between a Texan and a Bostonian, scientists can tell the difference between groups of orcas.

They celebrate. All three pods acknowledge each other, lining up as families when they come back into the Salish Sea.

Credit Ken Balcomb

And just like some of us, they’re picky eaters. Orcas eat only what mom eats, which means almost nothing but salmon — 97% of their diet — but not just any salmon. They prefer the biggest and fattest of them all — the Chinook. These orcas move with the salmon, hugging the inland waters of Washington State to southern British Columbia from spring to fall. In winter, they expand their range south to California and north to Southeast Alaska.

Yet they face a major problem — a lack of food. The mighty rivers of the West — including the Columbia Snake River watershed, a key source of Chinook — have been broken. Though the Columbia Snake once brought salmon all the way from inland northern Nevada to the Pacific Ocean, today it is full of dams. The four lower Snake River dams kill millions of Chinook juveniles every year as they attempt to migrate downriver to the ocean.

In the course of just a few decades, Southern Resident orcas went from gorging on a salmon-rich buffet to searching for some measly leftovers. As of early August 2015, there are 81 Southern Resident orcas. Four of these are calves born in the past six months. No calf has survived in the past two and a half years, though so these newest “little ones” aren’t out of the woods yet. Mortality rates for first-born calves are in the 37–50% range. And many more of these orcas have died than survived (21 from 2010–2014). The Southern Resident population is moving in the wrong direction.

Scientists had pinned their hopes on Rhapsody (J32), who had just reached mom-age at 18- years-old, to help her whole extended family grow. But in December 2014, hearts were broken when Rhapsody died carrying a nearly full-term female baby.

A scientist who has studied these pods for 40 years surmised that Chinook salmon were so scarce that Rhapsody relied on her own blubber to keep her going. But as she tapped into that blubber, toxins stored there (called bioaccumulation) were released, harming her immune and reproductive systems. Her passing renews concerns about the fate of this whole population.

While whale lovers and Rhapsody’s family grieve for her, we have a chance to turn this sad story around. We can commit to save this extended family in time. The solution isn’t just great for orcas, it is also great for people, salmon, and all the species that rely on them. The solution has the added benefit of being extremely cool — like a Die Hard movie cool.

Those Dammed Salmon — Set them Free!

So…I was not anticipating being so touched by a movie about dams. How moving could that possibly be?

Very moving, as it turns out. The people behind Stoecker Ecological, Felt Soul Media and Patagonia knew what they were doing when they made DamNation. If you haven’t seen it, set aside an evening very soon, get the movie on Netflix, pop some popcorn, and gather the kids around — yes, even the kids. The movie is that good.

Damnation crew member photo credit DamNation

There was a time when talking about dam removal was something that mainstream conservationists would do only behind closed doors. It seemed too big, too “out there.”

But as economics, science, and data have overwhelmingly shown us recently, there are a lot of dams that are obsolete today, and yes, even harmful. Harmful not just to fish, but to species such as orca, who rely on salmon, and to humans, who have lost whole fishing communities, and to the businesses built around the fishing communities, and to tribes that lost parts of their culture — all hurt by dams. Guess how many dams there are in the United States? Seriously, don’t Google it; guess. No, it’s higher than that. (Keep reading.)

Hands down, salmon are the lifeblood of Northwest ecosystems. When salmon are free to do their thing — to swim from the upper reaches of our Western mountains out to the deep ocean (some reaching Japan), and then to come all the way back to start the next generations that will keep repeating the journey — they’re not just saving themselves, they’re helping us all.

Snake River landscape photo credit Flickr user Hawthorn Ave

The one most important thing that we can do to set them free, free to provide this incredible, abundant resource for us and for the creatures with whom we share this planet, is to take down some dams that no longer serve our communities. And with well over 75,000 dams across America, there are a good number that fall into that category.

Sounds radical? It’s already being done with great success and great results. It’s radically rational.

Our National Park Service recently oversaw the biggest dam removal project in history. Beginning in 2011, the Park Service began removing the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams on the Elwa River in Washington’s Olympic National Park. These dams had shut off all but the lower five miles of river to spawning salmon. Now the waters flow freely from the Olympic Mountains headwaters all the way out to the ocean.

Glines Canyon dam removal credit DamNation

Imagine all that rock and earth that the river slowly weathered away. It became trapped behind the dams for decades. As those building blocks of nature — the sand and dirt — tumbled past the remnants of the dams, acres of new beaches and estuary habitats were created seemingly overnight. And species came swimming, crawling, and slithering back.

Their ancestors hadn’t been above these dams in more than ten generations. Yet in September 2014, three confirmed adult Chinook salmon were spotted above the site of the blasted-away dams. It was the first return of the Chinook in 102 years.

Without the dams, salmon have come home. They’re getting 70 miles of their habitat back. Historically, when Chinook reached their full-size potential, they were 100 pounds or more — bigger than a German shepherd.

The Elwha River dam removal shows us what is possible. But the removal of the four lower Snake dams is the Holy Grail. Removing these dams would mean we could restore the largest remaining potential salmon habitat in the lower 48 states.

The Snake River dams are not just holding back a lot of sediment, they’re holding back salmon, orcas, and humans. They’re holding back the full glory of the Pacific Northwest. Imagine the richness of the ecosystems, the health of the oceans, the diversity of the species, the progress of the communities, and the return of the cultures that will all be revived in one fell swoop — or more accurately four fell swoops. Let’s make it happen.

Want to make a difference? Go here and help us tell President Obama to take down those dams!

You can learn more from our member groups, Southern Resident Killer Whale Chinook Salmon Initiative and Save Our Wild Salmon.

Written by Leda Huta, Executive Director of the Endangered Species Coalition — a nonprofit that saves imperiled wildlife, from butterflies to bears.