A whale of an ecosystem issue, by Ben Jealous

12/28/2023, 6 p.m.
Thanks to 20th century aquariums and marine theme parks, orcas – also known as killer whales – are the most ...

Thanks to 20th century aquariums and marine theme parks, orcas – also known as killer whales – are the most iconic whales in America. When the public learned their captivity involved torture, orca shows disappeared from those parks, as they should have. Now there are signs that certain groups of orcas could disappear entirely.

Significantly, many of the orcas captured – including the famed Shamu – came from a small population of orcas whose trusting nature made them easy to catch.

Southern Resident orcas, which historically spent the summer and fall months in Washington’s Puget Sound, are down to only 75 left in existence. Designated as “endangered” as of 2005, the Southern Residents remain one of the most critically endangered marine mammals in the United States.

But it’s a different human activity that is now making it hard for these creatures to survive.

Dams that were constructed decades ago along the Columbia and Snake Rivers have greatly disrupted the populations of sockeye salmon – also now listed as an endangered species – that the Southern Residents depend on as a primary food source.

The impact of the loss of salmon has been devastating not only to the orcas, but to the Indigenous peoples of the Columbia River Basin whose culture and livelihoods were closely tied to the fish, and to ecosystems from Idaho to the Pacific Ocean.

Four of the dams on the Lower Snake River are among the most harmful to the salmon. The removal – or breaching – of the Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose, and Lower Granite dams could bring back the fish and, in turn, give the Southern Resident orcas their best shot at a thriving future and growing numbers.

One of the fiercest leaders on Capitol Hill in the fight to get rid of these dams is Republican Representative Mike Simpson of Idaho. For nearly three years, Simpson has been pushing his Columbia Basin Initiative as a framework for salmon recovery and the restoration of the Lower Snake River to a natural, free-flowing river.

In today’s hyper-partisan political environment, people might be surprised that a Republican

is leading the charge to protect endangered wildlife. But 50 years ago this month, it was a Republican president, Richard Nixon, who signed the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Both Rep. Simpson’s tenacity and the ESA’s 50th anniversary serve as reminders that environmental stewardship and conservation wasn’t always assumed to be a partisan issue. In 1973, the U.S. Senate passed the ESA unanimously; the House passed it by a vote of 355-4. Can you imagine any piece of legislation getting near-universal bipartisan support in Congress today?

When he signed the bill into law, President Nixon said the law would preserve an “irreplaceable part of our national heritage – threatened wildlife.” Those words have proven prescient.

It’s estimated that, in its first 50 years, the Endangered Species Act has saved 99 percent of all the species listed as endangered under the Act from permanent extinction. These include the bald eagle – our national symbol – as well as the humpback whale, the grizzly bear, and the American alligator.

And it’s likely a testament to the effectiveness of the ESA that the Southern Resident orcas are still with us too. But it’s going to take both the strength of the ESA and shutting down the dams to save these whales.

Many of us might recall that in 2018 a female member of the Southern Resident clan made national news after her newborn calf died. The orca, known as J35, spent 17 days pushing the body of her baby through the water along a 1,000-mile stretch off the coast of British Columbia. It was a clear act of mourning – known behavior of orcas. But the length of time the mother pushed her calf and the dramatic nature of the display almost seemed intentionally aimed at getting the attention of humans – which it did.

The story of the orcas and the salmon shows the interconnectivity of species in our natural ecosystems. It further illustrates the dire need to combat the extinction crisis and protect endangered species. And it shows the importance of protecting laws like the Endangered Species Act and passing more of them – as well as shutting down the damn dams.

The writer is executive director of the Sierra Club and a Professor of Practice at the University of Pennsylvania.