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My Visit to the Snake

The story below was written by the Center for Whale Research’s founder and senior scientist Ken Balcomb, who has been studying the Southern Resident killer whales of the Pacific Northwest for more than forty years.

My Visit to the Snake was authored in 2015, but is as relevant today as it was then. The number of whales in Southern Resident community continues to decline, as do the Chinook fish counts. Since this story was written the number of whales in the community has declined from 80 to 76.

Without immediate action by Washington State and federal politicians, the magnificent creatures known as the Southern Resident killer whales (orcas) are doomed to extinction.

Please read Ken’s story, then make the choice to act: Call President Trump (Call 202-456-1111 | Monday - Friday, 9am - 5pm EDT), call Washington State Senator Patty Murray (link) and Governor Jay Inslee (link), sign this Breach The Lower Snake River Dams petition (link).


My Visit to the Snake

I must confess that I have packrat tendencies. Now in the twilight of my life I still have my grandmother’s car in which I learned to drive, my high school car, bones and artifacts that fascinated me into scientific pursuit throughout my life; and, now, terabytes of digital and digitized photographs from the recent half-century that have revealed the details of life history and demographics of the most charismatic of megafauna in the Pacific Northwest - Orcinus orca, the “killer” whales. I have only studied these majestic creatures for forty of the fifty years since I developed a curious fixation on whales, but much has been learned and much knowledge shared with my countrymen and the world about them in that time. They are famous as the best known whales in the world! But, that was not always the case. The common response to my proudly saying in the 1960s and 1970s that I was studying whales was, “Why?” “What good are they?” Even my father asked why I was wasting my life in this way. Whaling had long since passed in prominence in American culture and commerce, and totem status for wildlife was considered quaint and aboriginal by the cowboy and pioneer culture that had swept west from the east coast of North America and Europe. We of largely European descent brought a very utilitarian and developmental mindset to the incredibly bountiful forests, rivers and fjords of the Pacific Northwest, and we prevailed. Only with the current human entertainment value of whalewatching, has the ‘why’ question seldom been asked anymore. Growing numbers of people now appreciate the whales’ natural majesty in the marine environment, and are understanding of their ecological requirement for food to survive.

Complementing my packrat tendencies, I tend to consider the status quo of institutions and structures to be enduring and worthy of protection, even if only as displays of the truly amazing feats our species has achieved in the course of human evolution and ingenuity. Not all of our feats have been without unforeseen consequence, however; and, most tend to crumble over time anyway due to planetary, climate and physical dynamics that for all practical purposes will never end.

Imagine my temerity at getting on a bandwagon to breach the Snake River dams. It is against my get-em and hold-em tendencies, and it seems to be counter to government intent. This is in spite of clear evidence that the salmon-eating population of “killer” whales that I am studying is on a path to extinction along with significant populations of their main food resource - Chinook salmon - huge numbers of which formerly spawned and returned to the Snake River, and in the interim fed fishermen and whales in the Pacific Ocean before the dams were built.

Before making up my mind on this dam-breaching issue, I had to see for myself what was going on in the Snake River watershed currently, so [in June 2015] my brother and I drove up the highway visiting the dams on the Columbia River and upstream, sightseeing and taking photos and videos along the way and learning about the current passage of remnant populations of salmon. But when we got to the McNary and Ice Harbor dams, it seemed as if an iron curtain had come down and we were prevented from taking any photographs, or even carrying cameras and cell phones behind the fences surrounding the dam structures. It was as if something was being hidden from view. And, it was. There was no point in our continuing upstream to Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams to take photographs and videos of fish passage, because that was not allowed. In truth, these four Snake River dams are obsolete for their intended purposes and are being maintained at huge taxpayer expense for the benefit of a very few users. Plus, they are salmon-killers in a former river (now a series of lakes) that historically provided spawning and rearing habitat for millions of Chinook salmon; and, they now doom all technological attempts to bolster salmon populations to expensive failure. Even many of the Army Corps of Engineers’ internal documents recommend that returning the river to natural or normative conditions may be the only recovery scenario for Snake River fall Chinook salmon, and it will also benefit other salmon populations. You and I are paying for this economic and ecological fiasco with our tax dollars spent to maintain structures and negative return on investment in power generation, “barge” transportation, and recreation. The question I would now ask is “Why?”, and “What good are they?”

If you really want to have healthy ecosystems with salmon and whales in the Pacific Northwest future, and save tax/rate payer money at the same time, please [contact] your elected representatives in support of a Presidential mandate to begin the return of the Snake River ecosystem to natural or normative conditions [immediately]. Believe it or not, this can be done and doing so makes perfect ecological sense. The technological fixes for the dams have not improved wild salmon runs, and there is nothing left to try ... there are no fixes for the deadly lakes behind the dams. We are dangerously close to studying and managing my beloved Southern Resident killer whale population to quasi-extinction (less than 30 breeding animals) as a result of diminishing populations of Chinook salmon upon which they depend. There are only [76] of these whales now in total (including juveniles and post-reproductive animals), down from nearly 100 two decades ago and down from 87 when they were listed as “Endangered” in 2005. When they are gone it will be forever. Fixing the Snake will help salmon and whales, and save you money. Please do not wait until both are gone. Call or write your representatives now!

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