There is an issue brewing in our backyard that really challenges us as Buddhists, in that it requires us to think about where the middle way should land. It is not an issue to merely ponder, but one with which we in the Northwest must soon take action. I will throw out the arguments of the various positions. Think about where we should draw the line.
This year, Indigenous People’s Day was celebrated on Monday, Oct. 14, 2019. Two Pacific Northwest tribes, the Yakama and Lummi Nation, took this opportunity to tender their grievance to the government to remove three major hydroelectrical dams on the Columbia River in favor of returning the river to the migrating salmon, and in turn, save the orcas that feed on the salmon. This was taken up on a CNN segment that aired on Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2019, titled, “How a Dead Whale Gave New Life to the Debate Over Dams in the Pacific Northwest.” Last year, on July 25, 2018, an orca mother known as J35 had been sighted pushing her newborn calf that was already dead. According to scientists this orca mother was desperately trying to encourage her baby to swim. J35 would eventually be named Tahlequah. It was reported that she pushed her dead baby for seventeen days and 1,000 miles. Only then did she give up. Can you believe the persistence of this mother orca? I can only imagine how much grief and love she had for her baby. This mother orca brought the plight of the orcas to the forefront of issues facing the Northwest.
There are three killer whale populations found between Washington state and Alaska, generally dubbed the Southern Residents. These killer whales are called residents because they spend nearly half a year foraging in inland waters. Southern Resident killer whales have been categorized as “endangered”. Their historical population was estimated to have been at least 140. Their numbers declined to as low as 71 in 1974 due to live-capture fishery for marine mammal parks. Then, they experienced an unexplained 20.4% decrease in population between 1995 and 2001. Compared to the late 1800s, the Southern Resident’s population has dropped by more than 60 percent. In the most recent count taken in 2017, it was found that their population had decreased to just 76 whales. The recent decline of Southern Resident killer whales are attributed to many factors such as toxic pollution, noise and disturbance from boat traffic. Noise is detrimental to killer whales because they use echolocation for navigation and for communication. Extraneous noise produced by ships distract and confuse the orcas. This can also lead to frustration and tension. Dangerous chemicals such as flame-retardants, pesticides, and industrial solvents are another great threat. Researchers are finding traces of PCB, PBDE, and DDT in the fat of killer whales.
While Southern Residents are not a separate subspecies of Killer Whales, they are genetically and culturally distinct from other killer whales. While most killer whales will eat other marine mammals such as seals, walruses, and other whales, Southern Residents eat fish. And, their favorite fish is the Chinook Salmon. Herein lies probably the most blatant of causes for the decrease of Southern Resident Killer Whales. Recently, scientists and observers have noted that many Southern Resident Killer Whales appear to be starving. Researchers have recorded a drop in the level of thyroid hormones in the whales. This
reduction corresponds with the dramatic attrition in the number of Chinook Salmon that migrate back to our rivers in the Northwest.
Chinook Salmon have decreased in size over the years. A University of Washington-led study, published on Feb. 27, 2018, analyzed 40 years of data from hatchery and wild Chinook populations from California to Alaska. The study showed obvious reductions in age and size of Chinook Salmon over 40 years. The size of Chinook Salmon has decreased by up to 10 percent. Chinook Salmon measuring 40 inches or more was very common forty years ago. It is difficult to find any salmon that are of that length today. Scientists worry because females that are smaller naturally produce less eggs. The population of Chinook Salmon have also decreased. Historically, it is believed that 10 to 16 million adult salmon returned to the Columbia Basin annually to spawn. Today, their number is estimated to be only one million. Furthermore, most of these are hatchery fish with weaker genes and less fat. It’s no wonder that the resident killer whales are starving.
What is preventing the increase of Chinook Salmon? The major reason are the dams. First, dams invariably raise the temperature of the water. Scientists claim that the temperatures are too high to sustain the Chinook Salmon. There are also dams that do not allow easy access for the fish to climb over the dams. Some dams are so prohibitive that the salmon have had no choice but to be displaced from their traditional spawning grounds. There are at least eight dams in the basin which pose as hurdles to the Chinook Salmon. Four are on the Columbia River (Bonneville, the Dalles, John Day, and McNary). And, four are on the Snake River (Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose, and Lower Granite). There are proposals to get rid of at least four dams (Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose, and Lower Granite). However, removing these dams will require an act of Congress. It is very complicated. Many businesses that are dependent on the dams will rebel against its removal. Farmers have wheat and barley barged over to Portland, where they are shipped overseas. Before the dams were built, goods needed to be transported by railroad to Pasco, WA.
That there is a reduction of salmon, means that it will at some point affect the lives of humans as well. It is just not so apparent. Scientists claim that at least 137 different species depend on the marine-rich nutrients of the salmon. For example, salmon are responsible for contributing up to 170 tons of phosphorous per year to Lake Illiamna, Alaska. The phosphorous is incorporated in the food cycle, benefitting over fifty species of mammals and birds that forage on the salmon. In Southeastern Alaska, spawning salmon are said to contribute up to a quarter of the nitrogen in the foliage of trees. Clearly, protecting salmon directly relates to our survival. Should dams be determined to be the major reason behind the salmon’s demise, we must consider removing the dams. However, dams, are not all that bad in that their construction does provide some benefit. Bonneville Dam, for example, produces enough carbon-free energy to power a city as large as Seattle. The energy that they provide are not just conveniences, but have become necessities without which our society cannot function. Dams power our hospitals, schools, transportation, and communications, to name a few. The benefit, however, is reserved for humans, and not necessarily for any other species.
I have provided some of the basic arguments facing the issue in our backyard. Where should we stand on the choice between liberating the salmon or maintaining the dams? Quite frankly, it is a difficult choice. While our entire ecosystem is challenged by the decreasing numbers of salmon on one hand, we as consumers are also in dire need of the clean energy provided by the dams. Though I am conflicted, I do believe that damage once done to the ecosystem cannot be undone. We must search for alternate forms of clean energy. It is difficult to come to a conclusive solution, but we can surely agree from this exercise that everything in our lives are interconnected. A mother whale’s frantic and emotional love for a child highlighted the decrease in the whale’s food supply, which in turn brought attention to the dams that have constricted the salmon’s life cycle. An adjustment made in one area will have consequences elsewhere. This is Buddhism. Buddhism is an exercise of understanding and weighing interrelated processes that transform dynamically over time. Buddhism is not so much the solution, as it is a methodology to help us to reach a solution. The solution itself is in each and every one of you. (Eisei Ikenaga)