SEATTLE -- More than 15,000 Washingtonians agreed this summer to support Environment Washington’s effort to protect orcas by restoring the Lower Snake River through the removal of four dams along the waterway. Students and recent grads led this effort by engaging tens of thousands of residents statewide to urge Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell -- along with other state leaders -- to take action on this pressing issue.
“I want my kids and grandkids to be able to see the orcas, but without immediate leadership and effective policies, regional orca and salmon populations are headed toward extinction,” said Lyndsay Lovitt, who lives in Tacoma and has worked on the campaign since April 2019. She personally talked to 1,117 Washingtonians this summer about the orca campaign.
“We need our senators and state leaders to help lead our region to a solution that restores the Lower Snake River, protects salmon and orcas, and also invests in and transitions communities, said Nick Schmitt, an Evergreen State College student who talked to 700 Washingtonians this summer about these issues. “Young people are stepping up and are making their voices heard, but we need our elected officials to lead if we are going to save our orcas.”
The Southern Resident Orcas are critically endangered. After news last week that three more orcas were believed dead, just 73 of these orcas remain. There is good reason to fear further damage to the population. Notably, salmon returns this year in the Columbia and Snake rivers, which are necessary for feeding orcas, are among the lowest on record. This result not only endangers orcas, but also hurts fishing communities and fishing jobs.
“The scientists are clear – If we don't want to see orcas disappear from our region we need to help increase the salmon population," continued Lovitt. “The best way to do this is by restoring the Lower Snake.”
In total, the Lower Snake River dams obstruct 140 miles of prime salmon migration waterways, and salmon populations have declined by nearly 90 percent since they were built. All Snake River salmon runs are now listed as endangered, including the Chinook salmon that orcas depend on.
The decline of our orcas is a crisis, and we have to respond with a greater sense of urgency, said Robb Krehbiel, Northwest Representative with Defenders of Wildlife. “Restoring the Snake River is one of the best things we can do to ensure that orcas have enough food they eat tomorrow and well into the future. The status quo is clearly not working, and it’s time that our elected officials take action to save salmon, save orcas, and invest in our communities.”
While students and other young adults are working with Environment Washington to spur action in our state, this is a regional issue. A few months ago, Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho spoke out about restoring salmon and steelhead populations in the Pacific Northwest. He said he is working with affected stakeholders to identify options for replacing the services currently provided by these dams in the event that they need to be removed.
“Only by working together throughout the Pacific Northwest will we solve these big, worsening problems,” Lovitt concluded. “Leadership from Washington’s senators is critical. The good news that we saw through the efforts of students and young activists this summer is that there is a lot of support for action to restore the Lower Snake River.”
Environment Washington is a statewide, membership-based environmental advocacy organization. www.environmentwashington.org.