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Fewer Orcas to Watch this Month in WA

June 15, 2009

SEATTLE, Wash. – June is Orca Appreciation Month in Washington, but the orca population is dwindling. The future of this rare whale is caught up in the battle over salmon recovery in the Northwest, because salmon are orcas' main food source.

Two federal reports – one examining the Columbia and Snake rivers, the other about California's Sacramento River – have come to opposite conclusions about whether dams on these rivers kill enough salmon to affect the orcas. Attorney Steve Mashuda with Earthjustice sides with the California opinion: Fish reared in hatcheries don't make up for the numbers of wild fish lost due to man-made changes to the rivers, and orcas are traveling farther to stay alive.

"Orcas shouldn't have to swim all the way to Monterey Bay every year just to find a decent meal. The Columbia-Snake system is in the whales' backyard, and it was once the largest salmon producer in the lower 48 states. We need to revisit the determination made under the Bush administration."

The Obama administration is reviewing the Columbia-Snake report, which was written while George W. Bush was President. That report says dams do not jeopardize the orcas’ food source. Mashuda says a decision is expected by the end of June about whether the feds will accept that report or redo it. Either way, both orcas and salmon remain on the endangered species list.

While federal agencies, the fishing industry, Native-American tribes and utility companies continue to debate the impact of the dams, Mashuda says the orcas’ chances for survival are not improving.

"Right now, we're hovering somewhere around 85 whales. We had seven whales die in 2008. The National Marine Fisheries Service has said that the population needs to be somewhere around 120 to be considered viable. So they need all the help they can get."

Information about Orca Appreciation Month events and background is available at www.orcamonth.org.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - WA