Race to save endangered orca population from starvation

Jim Waddell is urging the US government to breach the Snake River dams to allow salmon to once again breed and feed the starving orcas.

After dedicating his life to engineering, a retiree is racing against the clock to breach a network of dams to save a population of highly intelligent mammals from extinction.

Seventy-year-old Jim Waddell is fighting off cancer, and he’s hoping to live another three years to save a pod of orcas that are rapidly starving. While other orca groups are healthy from eating seals, the population known as the Southern Residents have evolved differently and they require salmon to survive.

Their problems escalated when Washington state’s Snake River was dammed in the 1960s and 1970s to generate hydropower, and the region’s once-thriving salmon population plummeted. As a result, the Southern Residents have to swim further in search of food, and that means they’re burning more energy. Some females are so unwell they’ve died giving birth.

Three of the Southern Residents in the distance.
The Southern Residents are listed as endangered due to concerns about pollution, food and boat noise. Source: Katie Comer
A pod of orcas. Source: Elizabeth Batt
The Southern Residents number no more than 75 individuals. Source: Elizabeth Batt

“The dams need to be breached immediately because we’re running out of time for salmon and orcas,” Mr Waddell told Yahoo.

“The orcas don’t have enough to eat to sustain and grow their population, so they’re just barely getting by and dying off. Their reproductive capability is really dismal.”

Why the Southern Residents are facing extinction

In the 1960s, before dolphin parks began catching individuals to entertain tourists there were around 140 Southern Residents. During this process, 47 wild individuals from this population were lost to capture or death. One of those taken from the ocean Toki died in August after months of declining health inside a tank in Miami after 53 years of captivity.

Civil engineer Jim Waddell in his office at home.
Civil engineer Jim Waddell is the founder of Dam Sense. Source: Michael Dahlstrom

Now the Southern Residents number between 75 individuals, and the population is listed as endangered. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) lists them as "struggling" and lists several threats including water contaminants, shipping noise, strandings, and lack of food.

  • Around 1 per cent of historical salmon numbers return to the Snake River watershed for spawning

  • Approximately 80 per cent of the Southern Residents' diet is chinook salmon

  • The Southern Residents traditionally fished half of their salmon from the Columbia Basin and half from the Snake River Basin

  • The Biden government has until August 31 to make a decision on breaching the dams.

Toki at Miami Seaquarium jumping from the water.
Toki was snatched from the wild and forced to perform tricks for tourists. Source: Getty

Fear time running out for endangered orca population

While some conservationists support the dams because they create hydroelectric power, Mr Waddell believes they are not cost-efficient and other technologies could do the job more effectively.

He runs the advocacy group Dam Sense which has been focused on creating an affordable engineering solution to the problem.

One of the Snake River dams.
The Biden administration is under pressure to breach the Snake River dams. Source: Getty

After working for the Army Core of Engineers, in the late 1990s, he became the Deputy District Engineer in Walla Walla, Washington — his department was responsible for overseeing the Snake River dams.

When he recommended breaching the dams in 2000, he says his advice was ignored. But in 2013, long after he retired, Mr Waddell rediscovered a pile of boxes filled with papers from his time in the department. “From then I just got dragged back into this thing,” he said.

Now there’s hope that Mr Waddell could finally see a resolution to the problem he’s been fighting for over a decade. The US government is under pressure to finally rule on a long-running court battle, and the Biden administration has given some indications it wants to see them breached.

Mr Waddell just wants the authorities to act soon, before the orcas' time runs out.

“We may already be past the point of no return. I’m an optimist, I’ll keep trying,” he said. “Even if there are no more orcas, we’ll keep trying for the salmon. And if they all die we’ll work for the ratepayers.”

Public comments about breaching the dam close on August 31.

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