The discussion of breaching the four Lower Snake River dams is a complex web of issues touching energy, agriculture and natural resources. The issue at the heart of dam breaching, however, is how to save the wild salmon that are affected by the dams.
A recent documentary, Dammed to Extinction, adds another layer to the already multifaceted issue. Orcas off the coast of Washington, where the Columbia River empties, rely on a supply of chinook salmon to survive. The anadromous species of fish provides roughly 80% of an orca's diet. There are fewer than 100 orcas left in the area.
Dammed to Extinction played to a sold out crowd at The Flicks the evening of Oct. 1. The event was cosponsored by local environmental law firm Advocates for the West.
“These whales are really amazing creatures,” Director Michael Peterson told Boise Weekly. “In spite of one of the worst salmon returns on record, they’re finding the food to stay alive.”
That’s not to say the orcas, and the salmon, are not in trouble. Many of the killer whales seen in the film have a condition known as “peanut head.” This is when the whales are so malnourished that their rippled skulls can be seen through emaciated skin. Additionally, at the time of the filming there was only one male of sexual maturity in the entire population.
Dammed to Extinction not only showcases the plight of the fauna indigenous to these regions, but also the people. In one gut-wrenching scene, a woman from the Yakama tribe describes being kicked off her native land, only to watch construction crews unearth her grandfather’s burial canoe from the bed of the river.
The film shows the political and economic strife behind what many say is causing the shortage of salmon: hydropower dams. The fight to remove the dams is hard-fought but, to date, has not moved forward significantly. Congressman Mike Simpson vowed that he was willing to do what it takes to restore salmon to the area, but has made little progress toward the goal.
While the film covers the plight of both the salmon and the orca, proponents of the dams are notably sparse throughout the movie. Peterson said this wasn’t a conscious decision to leave them out, but none responded to requests for interviews.
“We tried really hard to get any of those politicians that we talked about on film,” he said. “We tried to get them on camera and none of them would.”
Instead of in person interviews, Dammed to Extinction does showcase these politicians, all Washington-based, addressing the issue on C-Span. A number of them cite inaccurate statistics, and one even makes the claim that salmon returns are the highest they’ve been in years. This is untrue: In fact salmon returns have been on the decline for quite some time. This year’s return is the lowest in more than a decade.
The movie is based on a book by the writer of the film, Steven Hawley. Hawley’s book, Recovering a Lost River, was published in 2011. Hawley said he’s interested in pursuing future documentaries diving deeper into the issue.
The film will go on a tour around the country, with a Washington, D.C., showing planned for lawmakers and conservationists alike.