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Supporting orcas, Snohomian does hunger protest at state Capitol

SNOHOMISH — A Snohomish woman worried that the Southern Resident Orca pods* could go extinct without immediate intervention set up a post at the Capitol grounds in Olympia last week on a hunger strike.
Lanni Johnson said she did it to try to gather media attention that would build political weight to get Gov. Jay Inslee to stand on removing the dams along the lower Snake River in southeast Washington.
Johnson expected to conclude her fast today after press time. It would be her 17th day living on just water and Himalayan pink salt.
The fast’s timing is for the 17 days that the orca Tahlequah carried her dead calf last summer and captured the world’s attention.
By phone last week on her ninth day, Johnson, 71, said she was tired and weary.
She said she sticks to this diet when she goes home on the weekends.
The orca pods have shrunk to 75 killer whales. Researchers link the fewer whales to the state of Chinook salmon, their prime diet, which are less abundant and less nutritionally fatty today, leading orcas to use their own blubber to help survive starvation.
A healthy whale will eat more than 300 pounds of food every day, and salmon is a prime part of their diet, according to marine biologists. Less salmon means the whales must travel further to keep up their health.
The dams interfere with juvenile salmon populations. Some environmentalists call on this as a problem that can only be immediately fixed by demolishing the dam. It is one step
as part of rehabilitating the salmon population to thus save the whales.
Inslee lacks the “guts,” Johnson said, to tell the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to take down the federally owned dams. It’s not clear to the Tribune that the state has this power; Johnson said the U.S. Army Corps has final deciding power on the dams.
“Everyone is afraid” to act now, Johnson said.
The four dams are in southeast Washington, the state’s prime wheat country.
The governor convened a task force on orcas last year, and Inslee laid out a $63 million recovery plan that includes to increase salmon hatchery production for the near-term and to examine how to fix what hinders salmon runs.
None of these give immediate action that’s quick enough, Johnson said.
“People should understand the politics and those invested are fine with the status quo,” Johnson said. “The scientists are saying if we don’t get salmon to orcas in three to four years, they’re gone.”
For Johnson’s protest, she sat holding a whiteboard that said “solidarity with starving southern resident orcas - Breach the Dams! Now!”
She defends her position with facts largely sourced from damsense.org, which advocates breaching the dams. The website includes independent reports from retired civil engineer Jim Waddell who personally concluded in 2002, the Boise Weekly reported, that the dams must go. He worked extensively on evaluating the dams’ relative purpose while formerly working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
People living along the Snake River use it toward their livelihood, as documented in the March 24 cover story by Ron Judd in Seattle Times’ Pacific NW Magazine.
Tow barges take wheat downriver, and altering the Snake would push crop
transportation to trucks and rail, Judd reported. Wheat farmers told Judd that the tow barges charge them lower shipping service prices than truck or rail transport.
The per-unit cost to grow and ship wheat would remain profitable if using truck or rail transport but squeeze the margins tighter compared to barge transport, from calculations gathered in Judd’s article.
When asked on this, Johnson parried that more rail transportation could take up the slack and that the economics do not outweigh the orcas, Johnson said.
She characterized the stakes as weighing priorities: people or extinction. “As far as I’m concerned, we have to weigh losing an irreplaceable species,” Johnson said.

The decline of the Southern Resident orcas
The Southern Resident orca pods which frequent the Puget Sound during spring and summer became re-listed on the federal endangered species list in 2005.
The population fell from a high in the mid-90s around 100 whales, and today the population is at its lowest ebb since 1984, according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. The population hit its nadir at 66 whales in 1973, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Transient orcas that swim the Pacific Ocean do not have similar health problems, researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported in 2015. One reason is because these transient killer whales eat seals and other marine mammals.
All but one southern resident orca born since 2016 has survived, and that one was born last December. Eight orcas were born between 2014 and 2016, a “baby boom” as scientists called it. Four of those calves died. One calf, tagged as J52, died from malnutrition in fall 2017; another, J50, died last fall at 4 years old. NOAA cited malnutrition for J50’s demise.
Tahlequah’s calf born last summer died the same day of its birth.
The whales reach maturity around age 15 and stop being fertile around age 40.

Restoring salmon populations
On restoring salmon populations, numerous ideas have been proposed. The latest conversation has NOAA evaluating whether to restrict fisheries.
Another effect is what’s been called “The Blob” — a warm weather phenomenon that disrupted the food chain for the small creatures that salmon feed on, Seattle Times reporter Lynda V. Mapes reported in 2017. “The Blob” also drew in invasive species upriver that feed on young salmon. Mapes reported in March that the spring salmon returns will continue to be lower than expected.
As juvenile salmon swim along the Snake River to the Columbia, their survival rates when they reach each dam decreases.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reported in 2002 that the “cumulative survival for juvenile salmon through all four
dams and reservoirs (along the Snake River) is over 80 percent. Cumulative survival for juvenile salmon through all eight dams on the Columbia River System ranges from 45 to 60 percent.”
The feds recently removed four separate dams in the Elwha River, up in the Olympic Peninsula.
Opponents to breaching the Snake River dams in Judd’s March 24 Seattle Times magazine article contrast that the Elwha is in the woodlands, while the Snake is a working river used for transporting bulk wheat and is siphoned from to irrigate crops.
Others defend that the hydropower systems along the Snake River provide
clean energy. Dam-buster advocates say this hydropower creates non-critical surplus power for the Bonneville Power Administration’s system. In other words, it doesn’t do much for Washington state.
Quantified, hydropower systems at the four Lower Snake River dams “contribute just 2.9 percent of the (Northwest) region’s power,” according to an analysis paper from
scientists at Earth Economics of Tacoma.
There are four steps described in a 2002 Army Corps of Engineers environmental study about the Snake River dams, Johnson said. The fourth conclusion, if none of the other steps work, is to breach the dams. She contends we’re there now.

 


* - This story updates a line in the lede that there is the Southern Resident Orca pod. There is more than one pod.

  

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