Salmon and orcas don’t know borders – and neither should our conservation efforts

We urge you to support salmon recovery efforts on both sides of the border– from the Fraser River Estuary to the Lower Snake River.

Under the warm Wyoming sun, the only sounds I hear as we drift down the Snake River are the calls of birds and the occasional ripple of a trout surfacing to capture an insect. At six years old,  I listen attentively as my Dad explains that a Mayfly hatch is emerging, which I can see hovering just above the water. “You have to observe what the insects are doing, and match your fly to the latest hatch. The trout are smart, and they will know if you don’t use the right one.” A minute later, I hear the quiet swoosh, swoosh, swoosh of his fly rod as he casts before gently landing the Mayfly replica onto the river. I wait with eager anticipation to see if a trout rises from the clear depths to take the fly. 

I grew up spending my summer days fly fishing with my Dad on the Snake River, which winds its way through the Jackson Hole valley in Northwestern Wyoming. As the largest tributary of the Columbia River, the headwaters of the Snake River spill out of the Rocky Mountains in Yellowstone National Park, where it then journeys through Idaho and Washington towards the Pacific Ocean. Lovingly referred to as ‘the Snake’ by Jackson locals, it was a cornerstone of my upbringing and introduced me to the importance of free flowing water at an early age. 

Young girl sitting on a boat.
Kristen Walters, 1996.

Little did I know that 23 years later, and 1,000 miles (1,609 kilometers) downstream on the West Coast, I would be a biologist, living in British Columbia, Canada conducting research and implementing conservation initiatives to recover wild Pacific salmon and endangered Southern Resident killer whales (sometimes referred to as ‘Puget Sound orcas’ in Washington). Similar to my life trajectory, wild salmon are transboundary in nature; they embark on epic migrations that take them through international waters that span the North Pacific Ocean. Snake River Chinook salmon gain 6,500 feet (1,981 meters) of elevation over 900 miles (1450 kilometers), and pass through eight dams during their migration out to sea. They do this feat twice, and amazingly some juveniles survive the journey, despite being just four inches long. Yet they  have been on a slow slide towards local extinction, despite the millions of dollars invested in their enhancement over the last several decades. In 2019 only 3,763 wild Chinook salmon returned to spawn in the Snake River, which is 4% of the historical total. 

Underwater view of a school of Chinook salmon swimming.
Chinook. Photo by Fernando Lessa.

In British Columbia, Fraser River Chinook also undertake a herculean migration that takes them through the heart of the province’s most densely populated region. The Lower Fraser River and surrounding region has already lost 85% of its floodplain habitat, and 1,381 miles (2,224 kilometers) of streams are currently inaccessible to salmon due to barriers to fish passage. Due to these threats among many others, several Fraser River Chinook populations have been assessed as endangered with bleak recovery potential. 

As both Snake and Fraser River Chinook salmon populations are a main food source for the critically endangered Southern Resident killer whales, rapid action is needed. In order to advance the recovery of these fish, and the nutritionally-stressed whales that rely on them, we need to take inspiration from the international nature of these species. 

Over the last six years, Raincoast has been conducting restoration efforts in the Fraser River Estuary to restore passage for juvenile salmon to access habitat that has been alienated for 100 years. This work has been conducted with many collaborators that range from the federal government, to First Nations, to academics and non-profits. Notably, our research on Fraser Chinook salmon and Southern Resident killer whales has strong collaboration with our American partners, including the Wild Fish Conservancy and Wild Orca. This work has seen immediate results, with juvenile salmon using the breaches we created in two jetties to access essential feeding and rearing habitat.

North Arm Jetty with a large notch in it.
Breach in the North Arm Jetty. Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.
Two people looking in a viewfinder at a salmon smolt while doing monitoring on the North Arm Jetty
Monitoring of the breach in the North Arm Jetty. Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

Similarly, in the lower 48, organizations working to advance conservation efforts, such as the removal of lower Snake River dams in Washington, should engage their Canadian counterparts. When we work separately in our respective countries, we can lose sight of the big picture. We must recognize that these salmon and whales are neither  ‘American’ or ‘Canadian’. They are integral to the entire region, and our approach to their recovery must follow suit. 

Large Dam.
Snake River Dam. Photo by Patagonia.

Both the removal of the lower Snake River dams and continued creation of salmon passage in the Fraser Estuary will benefit salmon and Southern Resident killer whales, whose primary food source is Chinook salmon. Breaching the dams would mean that 5,500 miles of intact stream habitat would be available to salmon in Washington and Idaho. Similarly in the Fraser River Estuary, ongoing habitat restoration is aiming to provide access to habitat for endangered populations of Fraser Chinook salmon. These species provide an important reminder that in order to achieve a resilient future, we must take a broader lens that considers the importance of thriving ecosystems across scales and communities.

You can help

Raincoast’s in-house scientists, collaborating graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and professors make us unique among conservation groups. We work with First Nations, academic institutions, government, and other NGOs to build support and inform decisions that protect aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, and the wildlife that depend on them. We conduct ethically applied, process-oriented, and hypothesis-driven research that has immediate and relevant utility for conservation deliberations and the collective body of scientific knowledge.

We investigate to understand coastal species and processes. We inform by bringing science to decision-makers and communities. We inspire action to protect wildlife and wildlife habitats.

Coastal wolf with a salmon in its month.
Photo by Dene Rossouw.