Court Orders Agencies To Consider Fewer Hatchery Fish For The Elwha

In this 2011 photo, Lower Elwha Hatchery Manager Larry Ward feeds the steelhead and coho that are being raised in a hatchery for introduction to the Elwha. | credit: Katie Campbell | rollover image for more

In this 2011 photo, Lower Elwha Hatchery Manager Larry Ward feeds the steelhead and coho that are being raised in a hatchery for introduction to the Elwha. | credit: Katie Campbell | rollover image for more


By Cassandra Profita, OPB

A judge has ordered federal agencies to reconsider the number of planned hatchery fish releases into the Elwha River on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula

As crews finish the largest dam removal in history on the Elwha, managers are working to restore fish runs above the dam sites. Their plan includes releasing more than 7 million hatchery salmon and steelhead into the river.

That plan has been controversial. Some conservation groups want to see wild fish repopulate the river on their own. They’re worried that releasing too many hatchery fish will reduce the chances of wild fish reproducing. They sued the agencies in charge of the plan as well as officials with Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, which operates hatcheries on the river.

One of their arguments was that the agencies –- including the National Marine Fisheries Service and the National Park Service –- failed to consider options that would release fewer hatchery fish into the river.

“There was no range of alternatives,” said Kurt Beardslee, executive director of the Wild Fish Conservancy. “It was either plant all of the hatchery fish or none.”

Federal Judge Benjamin Settle agreed with that argument. He’s ordered federal agencies to meet with conservation groups to consider an option that would reduce the number of spring coho salmon and steelhead released to just 50,000 apiece. Those are the numbers conservation groups proposed.

In his opinion, the judge wrote that “the court is concerned with the spring coho and steelhead releases,” and as the agencies consider options for releasing fewer hatchery fish, those proposed numbers “would be a good starting point for an agreement.”

The National Marine Fisheries Service released a statement in response to the decision noting that the judge upheld the overall hatchery plan for the Elwha River.

“Numerous reviews and a broad consensus of scientists have found that hatcheries are necessary during dam removal to prevent the wild Elwha salmon and steelhead populations from being extinguished by sediment as the dams come down,” the statement reads. “The court upheld the Federal agencies’ decisions and the hatchery plans of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe on all points except one.”

An Undammed River’s Sediment Brings New Life Downstream

Katie Campbell, KCTS9

PORT ANGELES, Wash. — Anne Shaffer sits on the sandy shoreline of the Elwha River and looks around in amazement. Just two years ago, this area would have been under about 20 feet of water.

So far about 3 million cubic yards of sediment — enough to fill about 300,000 dump trucks — has been released from the giant bathtubs of sediment that formed behind the two hydroelectric dams upstream. And that’s only 16 percent of what’s expected to be delivered downstream in the next five years.

All of that sediment is already reshaping the mouth of the Elwha, which empties into the Strait of Juan de Fuca on the northern shore of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.

The depth at the mouth of the river has changed by about 50 feet. Long, charcoal-colored sandy beaches have formed where there once only smooth, platter-sized cobblestones.

Watch video report:


“This place is like Christmas,” says Shaffer, a marine biologist and the executive director of the Coastal Watershed Institute. “Everyday you come out here and its something new.”

Shaffer is leading a team of researchers who are studying the Elwha’s nearshore area, where the river’s freshwater meets the saltwater tides. Shaffer explains that until recently this area was starved of sediment, and now a whole new ecosystem is forming. Her team is trying to find out what tiny creatures are moving in.

They’re searching for evidence that species like sand lance and surf smelt are using this area as spawning grounds. These tiny fish are a common food sources for juvenile salmon.

Sand lance (top) and surf smelt (bottom) by David Ayers/USGS.


Sand lance, she explained, require a very fine grain sediment in order to lay their eggs.

“We now are surrounded by the exact grain size that sand lance need to spawn,” she says.

The team scoops up bags of sand to test in the lab. So far they haven’t found evidence of sand lance spawning in this new habitat, Shaffer says. But they have found that surf smelt are spawning in areas where sandy substrate has built up.

During recent fish census surveys of the Elwha’s estuary, Shaffer’s team counted baby chum salmon in numbers they haven’t seen in years, if ever, Shaffer said. And they’ve also found a number of eulachon, a type of smelt that was once an abundant food source for coastal tribes. The eulachon is now listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

“As soon as this habitat is available, these fish are using it,” Shaffer says. “None of us anticipated how quickly it would occur. I’d never seen a eulachon in the estuary before, but in the last three months, every time we survey, we see them.”

The drone of a single-engine plane causes Shaffer to look up and shield her eyes.

“I bet that’s Tom,” she says with a smile.

A Bird’s Eye View

Port Angeles pilot and photographer Tom Roorda has had one of the most unique perspectives during the last two and a half years while the dams have been slowly dismantled. He started taking land-survey photos of the Elwha eight years ago. Back then his photos were used to help the federal Bureau of Reclamation prepare for dam removal.

Today his jaw-dropping aerial photos capture the giant plume of sediment flowing out of the mouth of the Elwha.

“Until I started taking these pictures, no one had any idea how much sediment was coming down or how far it extended out into the strait,” Roorda said.

The flush of sediment has moved the mouth of the Elwha north by about 300 feet, creating a long skinny spit that extends into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The area that used to serve as the Elwha’s estuary has been inundated with freshwater and a new estuary is forming downstream.

“As soon as it starts to rain that sediment gets washed down into the river and we get these big gulps of sediment coming down,” Roorda said.

This winter’s rains have continued to flush sediment downstream, so much so that the river’s flow is currently 10 times higher than normal. While all that sediment is ideal for building nearshore habitat, some worry the water will be too murky for salmon. Sediment can clog and irritate their gills and make it difficult to find food.

But Shaffer for one, isn’t concerned.

“Salmon are brilliant,” she said. “They have evolved over millenia. If they’re given a chance to acclimate to it, they will.”

The First Leap?

Today the entire length of Elwha looks like a free-flowing river. That’s because recent storms have submerged the remaining 25 or so feet of the Glines Canyon Dam.

Glines Canyon Dam 3/10/14
Glines Canyon Dam, March 10, 2014, Olympic National Park


From webcam images, it’s difficult to even identify the slope of what remains of the 210-foot spillway. This is causing some to wonder how much longer it will be before the first fish leap over the concrete barrier that remains.

It may take weeks or months, but when the first leap happens, it’s not likely to be a salmon.

“Steelhead are quite the athletes. A steelhead can leap up to 12 feet in a single jump,” said John McMillan, a NOAA biologist who is tracking fish recovery on the Elwha.

McMillan is betting on steelhead — trout that, like salmon, are born in freshwater streams before migrate to marine waters. He says he’s seen steelhead ascend a 35-foot cascading waterfall by taking a series of long leaps.

Researchers are using imaging sonar to track the different fish returning to the Elwha, and they’ve found that some steelhead have already returned to the lower Elwha, McMillan said. The bulk of the run, however, is expected to take place from April to early July, he said.

Dam deconstruction will pause May 1 to minimize disruption to the steelhead spawning season.

Removal of the Lower Elwha Dam finished in March 2012. The last of the rubble of the Glines Canyon dam is expected to be gone by September 2014.

Elwha River Restoration: Kruckeberg Botanic Garden Special Lecture

Photo source: Salmon Recovery Fund

Photo source: Salmon Recovery Fund

January 21, 2014


Our guest speaker at the 2014 KBGF Members’ meeting will be Joshua
Chenoweth, head botanist on the Elwha River Dam Removal Ecosystem Restoration Project. Dam removal, once completed, will be the largest dam removal project in the U.S. and the restoration project is the second largest project ever undertaken by the National Park Service. Join us to learn about the unprecendented ecosystem restoration activities occurring in our state!


Revegetation of the Former Reservoirs on the Elwha River 2011-2013

Revegetation of the former reservoirs, Lake Mills and Lake Aldwell, on the Elwha River is an unprecedented effort to reverse the impacts of dams on a major river. Dam removal, once completed, will be the largest known dam removal project in the United States and the Elwha Ecosystem Restoration Project is the second largest restoration project ever undertaken by the National Park Service. Dam removal has exposed nearly 800 acres of valley slopes, terraces, and floodplain that was inundated for 80-100 years. The reservoir trapped nearly 30 million cubic yards of inorganic sediments ranging in

Time/Date: 7:00 PM – 9:00 PM, Tues. Jan 21st, 2014

Cost: free to KBGF members / $5 suggested donation


Shoreline City Hall, Council Chambers

17544 Midvale Ave N # 100
Seattle, WA 98133

Community: Shoreline – Lake Forest Park
View Map | Get Directions

Pink Salmon Broodstock Spawned to Protect Elwha Run

Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe hatchery technician Keith Lauderback sorts through pink salmon eggs at the tribe’s hatchery.

Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe hatchery technician Keith Lauderback sorts through pink salmon eggs at the tribe’s hatchery.

Source: Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission

Pink salmon are the most abundant salmon species in the Northwest, but the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe didn’t want to risk losing the Elwha River pink population with the current removal of the river’s two fish-blocking dams.

The deconstruction of the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams are part of the massive project to restore the Elwha River after nearly 100 years of blocked flows and degraded salmon habitat. One result of the project is that high levels of sediment once trapped trapped behind the dams are now flowing downriver.

“We weren’t sure how the pinks were going to be affected by the dam deconstruction activity, so we wanted to take precautions to protect them,” said Larry Ward, the tribe’s hatchery manager. “The historical population of pinks in the Elwha River was 400,000 to 600,000. The current run is 200, making it a chronically depressed stock of fish.”

While pinks have a lower commercial value, they play an important role in a properly functioning ecosystem by providing food for other animals and contributing nutrients to the watershed.

“The habitat in the lower river for pinks wasn’t great when the dams were in place, but they were using it,” Ward said.

Pinks returning to the Elwha River in 2011 were collected and spawned. The fertilized eggs were incubated at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (WDFW) Hurd Creek Hatchery, then sent to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Manchester Research Station, where they were reared to adults. The fish, 300 males and 132 females, were then brought back to Elwha in August for spawning.

A portion of the fertilized eggs from this fall’s spawning will go back into the pink salmon broodstock program, while the rest will be reared to smolts and released from the Elwha Hatchery into the river in spring 2014. The broodstock program is expected to continue through the 2015 pink salmon cycle.

The tribe’s partners in this program are NOAA, WDFW, Olympic National Park, Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission and citizen volunteers.

Being Frank: Chehalis Dam Threatens Treaty Rights

By Billy Frank Jr., Chairman, Northwest Indian Fisheries

OLYMPIA – As removal of two fish-blocking dams on the Elwha River dams nears its end, I’m scratching my head. Why is a proposal to build a brand new dam on the Chehalis River watershed in Lewis County receiving serious consideration? And why is the Quinault Indian Nation being left out of the discussion?

There is no question that terrible flooding has occurred on the Chehalis during recent decades. People’s lives and homes have been damaged and destroyed. I-5 has been closed for days. But much of that damage has been caused by encouraging development in flood prone areas and by the unwillingness of short-sighted politicians to enact proper flood plain management systems. While a few entities have taken steps to restrict development in harm’s way from flooding, others have not. Building more dams is not the answer.  Condemning an entire ecosystem and subjecting everyone who lives in the basin to the long term effects of a dam is not the best or the only way to fix the problem.

I thought we had learned our lessons about dams by now. All over the country dams are being taken out to try to undo the damage they have done to critical natural processes.  Time and again, dams have been proven to kill fish and destroy the natural functions of the watersheds after they’re built. We need to be looking forward when it comes to natural resources management. Building a flood control dam on the Chehalis is backwards thinking that doesn’t contribute to sustainability of our natural world.  We need to do whatever we can to avoid damage before it is done. Flood control dams prevent the river’s natural floodplain from doing its job to help reduce the effects of flooding. While a dam may reduce how often floods occur, it can’t prevent the biggest, most damaging floods from happening.

The Chehalis River basin – the second largest in the state – already is heavily damaged. More than 1,000 failing and under-sized culverts block access to more than 1,500 miles of salmon spawning and rearing habitat. A huge network of poorly maintained logging roads is loading silt into the river and smothering salmon egg nests. At the same time, forest cover in the basin is quickly disappearing, reducing shade needed to keep stream temperatures low for salmon

A dam would only make things worse. The only thing it would be certain to do is harm salmon and steelhead at every stage of their life cycles and damage natural functions  that are vital to every living thing in the Chehalis Basin.

Unfortunately, the State of Washington refuses to recognize that as a co-manager with treaty-reserved property rights to fish, hunt and gather in the Chehalis Basin, the Quinault Indian Nation must be directly engaged in government-to-government discussions about  flood control and measures to protect the health of the Chehalis Basin. It is painfully clear that the Quinault’s treaty rights will suffer severely if a new dam is built. Yet the Chehalis Basin Flood Control Authority, which is due to make its recommendations on flood control measures this time next year, flatly refused to even allow the Quinault Nation to sit at the table.

Ongoing loss and damage of salmon habitat threatens tribal treaty rights. Through the tribal Treaty Rights at Risk initiative, we are asking the federal government to protect our rights and lead a more coordinated effort to recover and protect salmon in the region. One of our recommendations is a requirement that federal funding for state programs and projects be conditioned to ensure the efforts are consistent with state water quality standards and salmon recovery plan goals.  That’s what should be done on the Chehalis.  Preconditions should be established before allowing any federal funding to be spent to study or begin permit review processes.  As a start, commitments must be made to fully protect the ability of the Quinault Nation to exercise its treaty protected rights by addressing harmful  impacts on fish, wildlife, and ecological processes. All governments in the Chehalis Basin must  be required to ensure that future development in flood prone areas  is not allowed.

Federal agencies, the State of Washington, and the Chehalis Flood Control Authority need to sit down with the Quinault Nation. Together, they need to address flooding issues while also meeting the needs of the natural resources and everyone in the Chehalis basin whose culture, food and livelihoods depend on those resources.

Elwha exhibit at Burke explores reborn river

Oceanographer Daniel Hernandez strains to pull on the end of a seining net on the Elwha River in an effort to count the fish in a designated area.

Oceanographer Daniel Hernandez strains to pull on the end of a seining net on the Elwha River in an effort to count the fish in a designated area.

An exhibit based on the Elwha book by Seattle Times’ Lynda Mapes and Steve Ringman opens Saturday at the Burke Museum.

By Keith Ervin, Seattle Times

Chinook salmon returned to the Elwha River this fall in numbers not seen in many decades.

Other creatures have followed the salmon in returning to the Olympic Peninsula valley after an 8-mile stretch of the river was reconnected to saltwater when the Elwha Dam was removed.

A Burke Museum exhibit that opens Saturday tells the story of a river, the people who have depended on it, the scientists who study it, and the changes wrought first by the construction of two dams and now by the biggest dam-removal project in U.S. history.

“Elwha: A River Reborn,” based on the book of the same name by Seattle Times reporter Lynda Mapes and photographer Steve Ringman, runs through March 9.

Mapes will speak, and members of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe will talk and perform at the opening of the exhibit, which combines photographs, artifacts from an ancient Klallam village, a million-year-old salmon fossil and hands-on activities.

Children can play the part of a scientist or a journalist in “Camp Elwha,” an interactive exhibit inside a tent.

At the heart of the exhibit is the river, where salmon, steelhead and lampreys lost 70 miles of spawning grounds when dams blocked their passage more than a century ago.

It is also the story of the regeneration that has taken place since the Elwha Dam was removed in 2011 and will continue after demolition of the upstream Glines Canyon Dam is completed next year.

Mapes and Ringman followed the story, first in the pages of this newspaper and then in their 2013 book copublished by Mountaineers Books and The Seattle Times.

“This is a profoundly hopeful story,” said Mapes, who is currently a fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at MIT.

“It shows that in the right place and with the right conditions, you really do have a chance to start over. You can take a place that’s been used for industrial development, even for a very long time, and have nature come booming back. “

An iconic image for her was a water ouzel in a restored tributary delicately holding a coho salmon egg in its beak “as if it were a glass of fine cabernet.”

George Pess, a NOAA fisheries biologist and a source for Mapes’ reporting, said that as salmon have returned, otters, bears, lampreys and many other animals have come back.

“Everybody kind of got the signal, whether it’s smell or sight, everybody knew something was happening that hadn’t happened in a long time that was important to the ecosystem,” Pess said.

Restoring the salmon to something resembling their once-legendary glory will take years, Pess said.

Bringing back towering trees where lake silt has replaced the humus-rich soil of a long-gone forest, Mapes said, will take much longer.

Although that won’t happen quickly, she said, “One of the things that struck me is how ephemeral the works of man are and how incredibly resilient nature is.”

The exhibit was created by the Burke Museum in collaboration with The Seattle Times, Mountaineers Books and the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe.

Elwha River sees largest run of Chinook in decades

Source: The Seattle Times

The largest run of Chinook salmon in decades returned to the Elwha River this fall, according to officials with the Olympic National Park.

PORT ANGELES, Wash. — The largest run of Chinook salmon in decades returned to the Elwha River this fall, according to officials with the Olympic National Park.

Fish are streaming into stretches of the Elwha River and its tributaries that were formerly blocked by the Elwha Dam, park officials said Friday on its website.

The Elwha Dam, one of two dams on the river, stood for nearly a century before it came down in 2012.

Removal of the remaining 210-foot tall Glines Canyon Dam resumed last month after nearly a year hold to give officials time to fix problems at new water-treatment facilities built as part of the $325 million river restoration project.

During a one-day survey in September, biologists counted 1,741 adult Chinook and mapped 763 reds between the remnants of the Glines Canyon Dam and the river mouth. About 75 percent of those were spotted upstream of the former Elwha Dam site, park officials said.

The biologists navigated over 13 miles of the Elwha River and tributaries, walking and snorkeling to find living and dead salmon along the river from Glines Canyon Dam to the river mouth. They also surveyed lower portions of three river tributaries, including Indian Creek, Hughes Creek, and Little River.

Results from the survey indicate this year’s Chinook return is one of the strongest since 1992, according to park officials.

Dam removal is scheduled to be complete in 2014.

With the two dams removed, the glacier-fed Elwha River is expected to flow freely as it courses from the Olympic Mountains to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Salmon and other fish that mature in the ocean and return to rivers to spawn will once again have access to more than 70 miles of spawning and rearing habitat, much of it within the protected boundaries of Olympic National Park.

Kids Fly a Kite for Science

Campers from NatureBridge Science Camp fly a kite over the former Lake Aldwell, with a camera attached to the flyline.

Campers from NatureBridge Science Camp fly a kite over the former Lake Aldwell, with a camera attached to the flyline.

Source: Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission

Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe youth collected data for the U.S. Geological Survey by flying a kite over the Elwha River this summer.

As part of a science-based summer camp focusing on the Elwha River restoration project, the kite was collecting data about the ever-changing Lake Aldwell delta. The red kite had a small digital camera attached to the fly line, set up to take pictures of the ground below every three seconds.

The USGS is collecting aerial photos to document the rapidly changing deltas of the Elwha River during removal of the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams, said KC Nattinger, a field science educator with NatureBridge, a Lake Crescent-based science education camp.

“It’s a great project for the kids since it allows them to participate in a science experiment in an area that they are culturally tied to,” Nattinger said.

In addition to flying kites, the kids took water quality samples, explored old tree stumps and driftwood, and learned about the tribe’s cultural ties to the river.

Klallam language teacher Harmony Arakawa talked about rediscovery of the tribe’s creation site. It had been under Lake Aldwell reservoir for a century until the Elwha Dam was removed last summer, draining the reservoir.

Arakawa talked about the site and its purpose. Tribal members would go on spirit walks to the creation site, first bathing themselves in the river and Olympic Hot Springs and then walk to the creation site seeking a vision.

Wendy Sampson, another Klallam language teacher, told the kids they are in the middle of history and are collecting stories that they will share with future generations.

“You kids are part of history,” she said. “You were some of the last kids whose picture was taken in front of the Elwha Dam before it came down.”

The stories passed down by older generations explaining how the river has changed has been backed by the science taking place on the river recently, Sampson said.

“These stories aren’t just stories,” she said. “We’re seeing evidence of the stories that our elders have told us.”

Northwest Pacific Salmon Habitat Restoration Efforts Hampered by Development

Northwest Indian Fisheries CommissionAlthough much work is being done to restore salmon habitat in the Pacific Northwest—such as replacement and repair of culverts, as pictured above—salmon habitat is being compromised faster than it can be put back together.

Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission
Although much work is being done to restore salmon habitat in the Pacific Northwest—such as replacement and repair of culverts, as pictured above—salmon habitat is being compromised faster than it can be put back together.

Richard Walker, Indian Country Today Media Network

Millions of dollars were spent on salmon habitat recovery in 2012, and millions more are being spent this year. But a foremost salmon expert says that without federal coordination of those efforts, and enforcement of existing laws, we may have passed a tipping point.

“We need to bring salmon habitat restoration back to the White House,” said Billy Frank Jr., chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission and one of the foremost salmon experts, in a 2012 telephone interview with ICTMN. He was about to walk into a meeting with Justice Department officials and members of Congress to ask that the federal government lead a coordinated salmon recovery effort.

“The federal government has turned over all of its responsibility to the state,” he said. “State agencies are broke and they’re not managing anything now.”

It took just 150 years to damage salmon habitat that had flourished for thousands of years. Development in shoreline areas. Dams. Fertilizers. Logging. Polluted storm-water runoff that ultimately made its way to the sea.

Today, dams have been torn down on the Elwha River. Culverts are being removed so that salmon can return unimpeded to natal streams. Dikes are being dismantled so waters can return to estuaries. Pollution sources are being identified and corrected. But according to studies by the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, Washington State is losing salmon habitat faster than it’s being restored, and Frank believes that federal leadership is needed to implement salmon recovery consistently across jurisdictional lines.

RELATED: Dammed No More: Chinook Return to Elwha River

Salmon recovery involves many agencies and jurisdictions, but those efforts are often not in sync; in fact they frequently conflict with federal salmon habitat-recovery goals. In one example, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has issued permits for shoreline structures that salmon recovery goals seek to remove. In Washington State’s Shoreline Management Act, homes are considered a “preferred” shoreline use, although home development often is accompanied by the construction of bulkheads and docks. Shoreline armoring and riparian vegetation removal are within the jurisdiction of National Marine Fisheries Service’s policy governing enforcement of the Endangered Species Act, but “there appears to be only one instance of NMFS exercising its enforcement authority over these activities during the past decade,” according to a 2011 report from the fisheries commission, “Treaty Rights at Risk: Ongoing Habitat Loss, the Decline of the Salmon Resource, and Recommendations for Change,” which led to an ongoing initiative of the same name.

But little has changed, and in September 2012 the fisheries commission released another report, “State of Our Watersheds,” documenting the results of local and state planning that have been in conflict with salmon habitat-recovery goals.




Which Fish Get To Recolonize After Elwha’s Dams Are Gone?


May 9, 2013 | KUOW


This is the second in a two-part series..

From where Mike McHenry stands he can see several gray, torpedo-shaped bodies moving slowly through the brown water of this side channel of the Elwha River, not too far from the site of the largest dam removal project in U.S. history.

“You are looking at several wild winter steelhead. These are the native remnant stock of the Elwha River,” explains McHenry, the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe’s fisheries habitat biologist.

These fish are some of the last wild steelhead in the Elwha – biologists estimate that there are between 200 and 300 left, and they’re here to spawn. But despite the fact that tearing down two dams has opened nearly 70 miles of pristine habitat on the upper Elwha River and its tributaries in the Olympic National Park, it’s made life rather difficult for fish in this river right now.

Millions of cubic yards of sediment and debris are flowing down from above the two dams, making this murky lower stretch of the river a bad place to spawn. But nevertheless, these few wild fish represent the prospect of a restored river, populated with thousands of salmon and steelhead – rivaling the numbers of fish that were here before the dams went in 100 years ago.

With that future in mind, McHenry and a team of field biologists and technicians are capturing, tagging and relocating these ready-to-spawn steelhead into a clear tributary of the Elwha, above the former site of the lower dam.

It’s a fascinating scene, filled with silvery flailing and splashing and men carrying fish from the pool up the hill to the waiting tanks to be anesthetized and tagged before the drive to the drop-off point upstream.

Then all that activity is brought to a halt by a slightly sleepy steelhead resting in a tank. It’s captured the attention of John McMillan, a contract biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“This is probably broodstock,” McMillan says.

Broodstock is another term for a fish that has spent time in a hatchery, even though its parents were wild.

This moment of discovery symbolizes a much larger debate playing out as different groups struggle over how best to rebuild the Elwha’s fish runs.

A broodstock fish discovered among wild steelhead. Credit: Ashley Ahearn

A broodstock fish discovered among wild steelhead. Credit: Ashley Ahearn

The Great Hatchery Debate

The 20th century wasn’t just an era of dam building in the Northwest. It’s also when hatcheries went up along the region’s rivers to supplement wild populations reduced by those dams, among other causes.

Some Native Americans support hatchery use as a way to restore fish runs that provided subsistence for earlier generations before the dams. But there are some who think hatcheries should not be used to speed up the return of wild, native fish.

It’s not just tribes that favor hatcheries on the Elwha as a way to provide a safe haven to keep native-origin steelhead alive in the tumultuous conditions that have accompanied dam removal.

“In this case what is very clear, crystal clear to us, is that the fish are in such bad shape and the conditions in the river are so unprecedented that any risk that the hatchery poses to these fish is more than outweighed by the benefits,” says Rob Jones, chief of production for inland fisheries with the National Marine Fisheries Service – one of the defendants in a lawsuit to stop the use of fish hatcheries on the Elwha.

Jones says wild steelhead numbers are dangerously low in the Elwha so the hatchery is necessary to steelhead survival. “The job is to help them hang on until these conditions improve enough and then, the strategy is, as we see that improvement that we start to phase out the hatchery.”

Jones says the hatcheries will be phased out when salmon and steelhead numbers increase, but the Elwha River Fish Restoration Plan does not give a set timeframe or hard date when the hatcheries will be removed.

Small-Brained Fish Or The JV Team?

Research has shown that when some types of salmon and steelhead are raised in hatcheries they can become domesticated. Other research suggests hatchery fish’s brains don’t grow as big and steelhead hatchery fish don’t produce as many offspring once they’re released. They’re also less likely to survive to adulthood than wild fish. But as the two hatcheries on the Elwha have demonstrated for years now, they’re a way to ensure that fish return to the river when conditions are hostile for wild, native fish.

The lawsuit over hatcheries in the Elwha recovery plan is a measure of how staunchly some groups oppose them.

“We believe that wild fish in the Elwha would recover better in the absence of hatchery influence,” says Jamie Glasgow, director of science and research for the Wild Fish Conservancy. “You cannot raise a fish in a hatchery without having a negative impact on it’s genetics and its behavior.”

The Wild Fish Conservancy is one of the non-profits that filed the lawsuit against the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, the National Marine Fisheries Service and several governmental agencies responsible for the Elwha restoration project.

The group says that hatcheries aren’t necessary for fish recovery in the Elwha, but if hatcheries are going to beallowed, it should only be for a limited time.

“From our perspective the plan lacks teeth,” says Glasgow. “It does not give us assurance and a real commitment to when hatchery production will be stopped.”

But keep in mind, the recovery process, underway on the Elwha right now, is unlike anything scientists have ever encountered. It is truly a grand experiment. No government or tribe has ever tried anything like this before – and no one knows exactly how it will play out.

Here’s the central question: with so few wild salmon and steelhead in the Elwha, should hatchery fish like be used as sort of junior varsity subs to boost the overall numbers of fish in this river as it recovers post-dam removal?

The science isn’t settled on how hatcheries impact wild fish, though there’s been a debate among fisheries managers on that for years.

Right now the Elwha is a difficult place to live if you’re a salmon or steelhead but it’s not impossible. Last year 500 wild Chinook made the journey above the lower dam to spawn on their own.

‘We Need To Make A Decision’

The debate over hatchery use in the Elwha recovery is playing out in real time as Mike McHenry stands over the tank and looks down at the fish with the nibbled dorsal fin that John McMillan has singled out as possibly coming from the nearby hatchery.

“Here’s where we need to make a decision,” he says, looking at McMillan.

Do the biologists bring these hatchery fish up into the pristine habitat above the dam? Or do they leave them here?

The team decides to bring two hatchery-raised fish upstream, along with six wild steelhead, to be released into the newly-available habitat above the former site of the lower dam.

McHenry leans down into the cold clear waters of this side creek and unzips a black bag. Two large steelhead slip slowly into the shadows along the bank nearby.

The biologists have DNA samples from all of the fish they’re releasing today – hatchery and wild. Mike McHenry and John McMillan say that will allow them to see who spawned with whom and which pairings led to more successful offspring.

“It’s a mixture, and that’s what we have,” McHenry says. McMillan nods his head in agreement.

“Yeah. It’s all we have to work with and you figure nature will sort it out ultimately. Nature sorts out who wins and who loses — and it will.”

For now anyway, nature is getting a little bit of help in the natural selection process.

Wednesday: Elwha River Recovery Proceeds Despite Sediment Setbacks.