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Could Breaching Lower Snake River Dams Help Orcas?

Researchers and others believe breaching the four Lower Snake River dams could give Puget Sound orcas more fish to feed on. (Seabamirum/Flickr)
Researchers and others believe breaching the four Lower Snake River dams could give Puget Sound orcas more fish to feed on. (Seabamirum/Flickr)
November 14, 2016

SPOKANE, Wash. – As the public weighs in today in Spokane on the future of the Lower Snake River dams, researchers are calling for their removal in order to save Puget Sound orcas.

In October, two members of the J pod of Southern Resident killer whales died, and scientists at the Center for Whale Research believe the cause was starvation.

Steve Mashuda, managing attorney for oceans at Earthjustice, says the whales feed on fish from the Snake River during the winter months, but he maintains that the four dams on the lower part of the river are leading to a decline in fish populations.

"The faster that we can get more fish for those Southern Residents to feed on, the better,” he states. “And the Snake River dams provide the biggest bang for the buck, in terms of fish that these whales rely on at critical times of the year. So, that's why the big focus is on the Snake River dams."

The Southern Resident killer whales were listed as endangered species in 2005.

The court-ordered public meetings come after a U.S. District Court judge rejected the government's latest plan to protect endangered fish. The judge ordered agencies in charge of the four dams to consider all options, including breaching.

The dams are controversial in Washington. Supporters of the dams say they are valuable for transportation of agricultural crops, irrigation and reliable energy for the region.

Mashuda says they may have provided more energy for the area in the past, but what they provide now is a lot smaller.

"The regional energy picture has changed tremendously since those days,” he says. “We have added almost double – and have on the books a lot more renewable energy – than those four dams produce."

The Spokane meeting will be from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Davenport Hotel. More meetings are scheduled, including in Lewiston, Idaho, on Wednesday and Walla Walla on Thursday.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - WA