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Looking forward for Southern Resident orcas in 2023

Hysazu Photography
Hysazu Photography

2022 was a big year for Southern Resident orcas - 2022 brought the final decision to remove the Klamath River dams in Oregon and California, which will give its salmon, a crucial food source for the orcas, a much-needed boost.  

Built early in the 1900s, the Klamath dams did not have fish passage that would allow salmon to swim upriver, and their stream-to-sea and back cycle was cut off.  The abundance of Klamath River Chinook salmon dropped, and the problem grew worse with more pollution, habitat loss, and demand for water throughout the 20th century.   

Facing high costs of relicensing and meeting environmental requirements, in the mid-2000s the dams’ owner decided to remove them – a monumental win for Native Tribes along the Klamath, the salmon, and Southern Resident orcas.  But this decision faced a long uphill battle that called for support from many groups, including whale advocates. 

Finally, after more than 20 years of work led by Klamath Basin Tribes and just over seven years of support from WDC, the last box was checked to move dam removal forward.  Demolition work is expected to begin this summer, with all four dams out by the end of 2024. 

southern resident
Hysazu Photography

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We celebrated this huge win which is an example of how long advocacy can take but how monumental the change can be.  We will still be following the recovery of the Klamath, and now we are setting our sights on the next big change for Southern Resident orcas.  In 2023, we will be focusing on measures at the state level that boost protection for the orcas themselves, increase local recovery efforts, and support actions for salmon, such as looking at other outdated dams in Oregon and Washington that are ripe for removal. 

With our partners in the Orca Salmon Alliance, we are getting ready for the Washington State legislative session, focusing on priorities of habitat restoration for salmon, protecting the orcas from oil spills, and reducing underwater noise.  In Oregon, the middle part of the Southern Residents’ range, we are advocating for more state protection and reviewing information on the environmental impacts of dams in Oregon’s Willamette River.   

While 2022 brought a lot of positive and encouraging news happened for these endangered whales,  there was also heartbreak for the orcas and all the people who are part of the community that surrounds the Southern Residents with the loss of Ken Balcomb, a pioneer whale researcher and the world’s leading expert on the Southern Resident orcas.   

Ken started the Orca Survey in 1976, a project that revealed the existence of the Southern Residents as a unique community of orcas and helped establish that different ecotypes of orcas existed – an idea now reflected in the study of orca populations around the world.  The Orca Survey is one of the longest-running and most comprehensive studies of any species, and much of what we now know about orcas, their behavior, social lives, diets, culture – pretty much everything we know about orcas at all – has roots in the Orca Survey.   

 Ken spent over half his life studying the Southern Residents and advocating for their recovery.  He was one of the first people to speak up about removing dams to restore the salmon the orcas depended on, and his leadership is a big part of why WDC focuses on river restoration as part of our Southern Resident work.  Our hearts go out to his family and partners at the Center for Whale Research.  We will miss Ken and his incredible depth of knowledge, but we are heartened that he built an amazing team at the Center who will carry on the work of studying the Southern Resident orcas and help build the strong science at the core of the work to save these whales. 

Early conversations with Ken about what the Southern Residents needed most to survive – more salmon – led to WDC’s first big campaign for our Jessica Rekos Orca Conservation project: supporting the removal of four outdated dams on the Klamath River.  WDC will honor Ken’s legacy by continuing the work to remove the four Lower Snake River dams. 

And for the whales themselves – 2022 had ups and downs.  New babies were born, including the first surviving calf in K pod in 11 years!  But there was also loss, and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife identified 13 orcas as “vulnerable”.  The population stayed fairly steady with 73 orcas, still perilously close to an historic low, but the orcas are holding on.  Their determination to survive gives us hope that we can achieve the wins they need (though hopefully faster than another 20 years). 

We hope 2023 will be another year of big change for the Southern Resident orcas.  We appreciate your ongoing support for our work to save this special community of whales – these wins and our plans for 2023 wouldn’t be possible without you. 

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