As a member of the Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Council, I was frustrated to receive the Eastside Audubon Society’s calling for the destruction of the four Lower Snake River dams, claiming it would help the struggling southern-resident Puget Sound orca.
The science and economics, however, are clear that spending money and resources destroying the dams would be a deadly distraction for the orca.
Eastside Audubon claims destroying the dams would, “save Chinook salmon,” and “provide a needed food source for the southern resident population of killer whales.” The science says otherwise.
The 2016 NOAA Fisheries report on Snake River salmon and Puget Sound orca notes that dam removal would be of “marginal,” at best, benefit to orca. Additionally, the dams’ impact on salmon is now extremely small. Peter Kareiva, who served as chief scientist of the Nature Conservancy, agrees. Last year he wrote, “it is not certain that dams now cause higher mortality than would arise in a free-flowing river.”
Destroying the dams would, however, require hundreds of millions — if not billions — of dollars that could go to salmon recovery where it is needed most. Watersheds across Puget Sound constantly struggle for resources and salmon are killed by runoff and toxins that could be addressed with stormwater filtering and treatment. That takes money we simply don’t have.
It is important to note that the population of salmon along the Snake River has increased significantly and is at levels not seen since the 1970s. Unlike Puget Sound, salmon population trends on the Snake are improving.
Eastside Audubon also claimed the dams are “no longer needed” for electricity, claiming we have a surplus. This is simply false. The NW Power and Conservation Council testified recently that we face an energy shortage beginning in 2021. Removing the dams would make this problem worse.
Eastside Audubon also says the electricity is simply sold to California, which makes it unnecessary. Admittedly, I understand where the animosity for Californians comes from, with their goat yoga and seemingly endless supply of Kardashians. However, the trade in electricity goes both ways, and the NWPCC notes that “an unexpected decline in available electricity market supply from California” could exacerbate the expected shortage of electricity.
Finally, Eastside Audubon makes an argument that is very dangerous for orca. They attack salmon hatcheries, saying “hatchery fish are thought to be hastening the demise of wild salmon.” There is strong scientific and bipartisan support to increase hatchery production to provide food for orca. Attacking hatcheries, a key near-term strategy to help orca, is extremely counterproductive.
It is also wrong. Many who advocate tearing down the Snake River dams point to the removal of the Elwha dam on the Olympic peninsula as a success story. The State Department of Fish and Wildlife notes that prior to dam removal, 96 percent of fish were hatchery fish. Last year, five years after removal, WDFW found the percentage of hatchery fish was 96 percent – exactly the same. Hatchery production, not dam removal, has been the key.
Wasting precious resources on something that does little to help orca while attacking one of the key strategies to help them, Eastside Audubon undermines the work being done by the governor’s Orca Task Force.
Those of us who work in salmon recovery care deeply about the work being done and it was very emotional watching the orca Tahlequah carry her dead calf for nearly three weeks. Emotion should not, however, lead us in a destructive direction, ignoring the science and pushing for wasteful and counterproductive approaches.
Eastside Audubon, its members, and others who care about our orca should join scientists and salmon advocates who are focused on the Puget Sound, where the fight to save orca will be won or lost.
Todd Myers is the environmental director for the Washington Policy Center.