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Salmon, Orcas, Rivers, and Sound: Our Interconnected Biodiversity in the Pacific Northwest

Conservation
Mar 22 2021
Partnering with groups across the region, here’s how we’re working to protect our home.

Looking outside the windows of our headquarters in Seattle and beyond to Bristol Bay in Alaska, the Pacific Northwest is our home. But we aren’t the only ones. 

It’s also home to a variety of ecosystems. Unique underwater marine life like geoduck clams, kelp, oysters, and octopus all reside here. If you’re fortunate, you might just see a passing Southern Resident killer whale pod on the hunt for Chinook salmon. Alaska’s Bristol Bay is a biodiverse and pristine ecosystem that supports the largest sockeye salmon run in the world. 

But our home, one of the world’s most beautiful and critical ecosystems, continues to face an uncertain future because of human activity. To respond to this threat we’re enabling research, technology, awareness, and habitat restoration to protect the Pacific Northwest for decades to come. 

 

Removing the Barriers To Recovery | Preserving What We Have | Improving What We Know

 
 

The Middle Fork Nooksack dam removal restored 16 miles of critical salmon habitat. Photo courtesy American Rivers.
Removing the barriers to recovery

Rivers are vital to life, and when we remove a dam and let a river flow freely, people, fish and wildlife, and the economy can all benefit.

April McEwen with American Rivers

Across Puget Sound, salmon are stuck. Old and obsolete dams are preventing them from accessing the clean streams and rivers they need for spawning and rearing. The impact has been alarming. 

Scientists suggest Pacific Northwest salmon are extinct in 40% of the rivers where they once thrived, and some populations are as low as 10% of their historic levels. The impact of this dramatic decrease reverberates across our region. One of the most alarming implications of the lack of salmon is to the endangered Southern Resident killer whale who are starving to death. 

“It’s the fish, specifically Chinook salmon, that’s the biggest problem,” said Dr. Giles, a killer whale researcher with the University of Washington. “They’re not getting enough to eat.” 

One way to reverse the decline and improve the chance that salmon make it to the Sound is to remove the barriers to their movement. That’s why we’re working with local organizations and tribes to remove dams and other man-made obstacles that stand in their way. In 2020, our grantees and partners removed five dams across Washington and Oregon, restoring 73 miles of Chinook habitat, and repairing over 100 miles of additional habitat. The results have been immediate, inspiring us to support more of this work. Preliminary design work has been completed for another dam removal that is set to restore 16 more miles of critical habitat. It’s too early to know the extent of the positive impact, and removing dams is not a silver bullet to recovery, but it’s one huge step in the right direction. 

At a Glance: Dam Removals

Dams Removed
5
River miles of Chinook salmon habitat restored
73
River miles of additional habitat restored
100
Bristol Bay, one of America's most pristine and productive ecosystems. Photo courtesy David Krause.
PRESERVING WHAT WE HAVE

We are the indigenous people of Bristol Bay and we deserve to be heard, we deserve to be respected, and we will not be brushed aside. We have inherited the responsibility to be strong stewards of Bristol Bay and we will not stop fighting until our homeland is protected from Pebble Mine.

Alannah Hurley, United Tribes of Bristol Bay

Bristol Bay is the lifeblood of Alaska. Home to millions of acres of wetlands, lakes, and streams, this area supports the largest sockeye salmon run on Earth. Known as America's “fish basket,” Bristol Bay’s watershed produces 46% of the world’s sockeye harvest and generates up to $572M annually. The watershed is home to 31 federally recognized tribal governments, including the Yup’ik and Dena’ina, two of the last intact, sustainable salmon-based cultures in the world. Bristol Bay holds global significance for food security and biodiversity, as climate modelling indicates the region’s importance as refuge under climate-change predicted conditions. 

But looming over this pristine ecosystem is the Pebble Mine: a proposed open-pit gold and copper mine that would be nearly as deep as the Grand Canyon and more than a mile long. The list of the negative environmental impacts associated with this development is long. The mine will produce billions of tons of contaminated waste, which could poison the entire watershed forever. It will destroy more jobs than it will create and ultimately threatens the Alaskan way of life. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ decision in 2020 to reject a key permit was an important but impermanent decision. One of our country’s last great wild places won’t be safe until it is permanently protected. 

“Salmon is our lifeline. Quite honestly, we would be nothing without it,” said Bristol Bay resident Karla Jensen. “We anticipate the salmon and prepare for their arrival as though they were the Pope arriving.” 

We cannot ignore what could happen to Bristol Bay. Through our support of Alaska-based groups, we continue to ensure that the Alaskan voices speaking out in its defense are heard. The threats this mine and other developments pose are too grave and what is at stake, the health of Bristol Bay, is too valuable to risk. 

Aerial view of Bristol Bay. Photo courtesy Guido Rahr.
One of thousands of brown bears seen fishing in the watershed. Photo courtesy Ken Morrish.
Bristol Bay is home to one of the most valuable commercial fisheries in the world. Photo courtesy Perry Broderick.

At a Glance: Bristol Bay 

Of the world's annual sockeye harvest
50%
Tribes who rely on the watershed
31
Fishing jobs supported
15,000
A group of Southern Resident killer whales swim off the San Juan Islands. Photo courtesy Jane Cogan.
IMPROVING WHAT WE KNOW

Advocacy is key, but it has to be backed by hard science.

Dr. Sam Wasser, University of Washington

What if there was a way we could better monitor the health of species who live their lives mostly unseen? How would this change our behavior?   

These are questions we’re working to answer so we can better understand what’s threatening the survival of some of the Pacific Northwest’s keystone species, including Southern Resident killer whales and a variety of salmon.  

The population of Southern Resident killer whales, who consume 80% of their diet from Chinook salmon, is at 30-year low. We know the main threats. Lack of prey is causing miscarriages and declining birthrates among our resident orcas. Meanwhile, contaminants like PCBs, an industrial lubricant, and DDT pesticide, are making them more susceptible to diseases. To make matters worse, the presence of vessels and the roar they’re creating below the surface is impeding the Southern Resident killer whales’ ability to hunt. We’re supporting researchers at the University of Washington, who are using dogs to sniff out killer whale scat to support their vital research. This scat (or whale poop), collected non-obtrusively, contains important data, providing scientists with a wide array of information on the whale’s identity, sex, stress, nutrition and even where they’re finding food. Whales can’t speak (in a language we understand), but their scat can help speak for them. 

“The importance of [collecting these samples] is that they enable us to tease apart the various pressures impacting these whales,” explains Dr. Sam Wasser, Director of the University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology. “This helps managers prioritize what pressures are most important to address first, given the urgent need to save these whales.” 

Tech is also playing a role. Working closely with our partners at SR3, we’re training machine learning algorithms to automatically identify individual whales in drone images and turn those images into actionable metrics. This will save time for SR3 researchers, helping them more quickly see trends that will inform policy to give these whales a fighting chance. 
Aerial images of endangered Southern Resident killer whales. Photo courtesy SR3 under NMFS Research Permit #19091.

At a Glance: The Southern Resident Killer Whales

Total in the wild
75
Year low
30
Of pregnancies lost due to stressors
2/3