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Breach Snake River Dams To Save The Orcas, Researchers Say

Corrected on October 31, 2016 - An earlier version of this story incorrectly placed the Snake River dams in Idaho. They are in Southeast Washington.

Some of the top whale researchers in the Pacific Northwest are calling on the federal government to breach four dams on the Lower Snake River in Southeast Washington. They say that’s the surest way to restore the Chinook salmon runs that endangered orcas primarily feed on.

The Center for Whale Research says, as of Friday, there are only 80 of the southern resident orcas left. Two females and a 10-month-old calf are believed gone.

“To me, this is a national tragedy,” said the center's senior scientist, Ken Balcomb, who has been tracking the animals for the past 40 years. He’s particularly concerned about the state of reproductive females. He says they’re struggling because they don't have enough food, so they burn the fat in their own blubber, where toxic chemicals such as PCBs are concentrated.

“To provide the energy to either raise the fetus or nurse the fetus and to feed their own bodies,” Balcomb said. “This is what whales have been designed to do, just to get through lean periods. But the problem is now, that fat is toxic to them and their baby and the milk they give to the baby.”

Of the approximately 30 females that are currently at reproductive age, Balcomb says only 12 have produced offspring. And he’s seeing mortality rates of 43 percent in nursing calves.

To address that, Balcomb and others convened a press conference Friday, saying it’s time to breach the four dams on the Lower Snake River. They say that would help restore the salmon runs the orcas depend on as their primary source of food.

Federal scientists and engineers say other fish runs and factors must also be taken into account, such as vessel noise and ongoing pollution. The Army Corps of Engineers is currently holding hearings on whether to breach the dams.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment beat for KNKX, where she has worked since 1999. From 2000-2012, she covered the business and labor beat. Bellamy has a deep interest in Indigenous affairs and the Salish Sea. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University.

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