Following an observation by a fisheries biologist and member of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe of a possible Chinook salmon in the former Lake Mills, two Olympic National Park fisheries staff conducted a snorkel survey of the Elwha River above the old Glines Canyon dam site.
They found three adult Chinook salmon, all between 30 and 36 inches long, in the former Lake Mills, between Windy Arm and Glines Canyon. Two fish were seen resting near submerged stumps of ancient trees;the third was found in a deep pool in the former Lake Mills.
“When dam removal began three years ago, Chinook salmon were blocked far downstream by the Elwha Dam,” said Olympic National Park Superintendent Sarah Creachbaum. “Today, we celebrate the return of Chinook to the upper Elwha River for the first time in over a century.”
“Thanks to the persistence and hard work of many National Park Service employees, the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe and many other partners, salmon can once again reach the pristine Elwha watershed within Olympic National Park,” said Creachbaum.
In addition to the three Chinook, biologists counted 27 bull trout, nearly 400 rainbow trout and two small sculpin during their survey above Glines Canyon.
The biologists began their snorkel survey in Rica Canyon three miles above the old Glines Canyon dam site. They then snorkeled downstream through the Canyon, through the former Lake Mills and downstream to a point just above Glines Canyon.
Last week, park biologists confirmed that two radiotagged bull trout had migrated through Glines Canyon and were in Rica Canyon. The three Chinook observed this week were not radiotagged, but were seen by observers on the riverbank and in the water.
The following day, biologists counted 432 live Chinook in a 1.75 mile section of river just downstream of Glines Canyon, but still above the old Elwha dam site.
Elwha River Restoration is a National Park Service project that includes the largest dam removal in history, restoration of the Elwha River watershed, its native anadromous fisheries and the natural downstream transport of sediment and woody debris. For more information about this multi-faceted project, people can visit the Olympic National Park website at http://www.nps.gov/olym/naturescience/elwha-ecosystem-restoration.htm.
OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK — Fish have migrated into the upper Elwha River for the first time in a century.
Olympic National Park biologists confirmed last week that two radio-tagged bull trout had migrated from the lower river through the former area of Glines Canyon Dam and reached at least as far as Rica Canyon above the former Lake Mills, some 15½ miles from the mouth of the Elwha River.
Four bull trout had been detected earlier as they passed a telemetry station upriver from the former Glines dam.
Thursday’s walk along the river with handheld radio receivers confirmed it wasn’t a faulty signal, at least for Fish 167 and Fish 200.
“The fish have made it” for the first time in 100 years, spokeswoman Barb Maynes said Friday.
Clearing the river for migratory fish passage was the point behind the $325 million Elwha River restoration project that began in 2011.
Both Elwha Dam, built in 1912 about 5 miles from the river’s mouth, and Glines Canyon Dam, constructed in 1927 some 13 miles from the mouth, were made without fish ladders and so blocked migrating salmonid passage from a river once known for legendary salmon runs.
The 108-foot Elwha Dam was demolished by March 2012.
The last 30 feet of the once-210-foot-tall Glines Canyon Dam came down Aug. 26.
The passage of four radio-tagged bull trout was detected even before that final blast, Maynes said.
That was possible because the 30-foot stub of the dam did not extend all the way across the river channel.
Park biologists know a great deal about those two fish — and hope to know more soon.
Fish 167 was captured and radio-tagged May 7 about 3.5 miles above the river’s mouth. It was 19 inches long.
This bull trout swam through the old Elwha dam site in late July before being noted again 8 miles upriver in early August.
Fish 200, measuring 20.5 inches, was radio-tagged June 25 about a mile and a half upstream of the river’s mouth.
It swam past the Elwha Dam site July 20 and swam through Glines Canyon on Aug. 24, just before the final blast.
Did the bull trout originate in the Elwha River?
Researchers don’t know yet, Maynes said, but they plan to perform genetic tests on fin clips taken when the fish were radio-tagged.
Those tests, which so far as Maynes knows haven’t been scheduled yet, would tell biologists the origin for the fish, she said.
Bull trout in the Olympics often get around, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Bull trout, which were listed in 1999 as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, may live near areas where they were spawned or migrate from small streams to larger streams and rivers or from streams to lakes, reservoirs or salt water, according to the agency.
In a May 2004 draft recovery plan, the agency said bull trout populations within the Olympic Peninsula Management Unit “exhibit all known migratory life history forms of this species, including fluvial [fish that migrate from tributaries to larger rivers to mature], adfluvial [fish that migrate from tributaries to lakes or reservoirs to mature], and anadromous [fish born in fresh water that migrate to the ocean to grow and live as an adult, returning to fresh water to spawn] populations.”
Biologists will continue to look for signs of migrating fish in the upper parts of the 42-mile river, which with its tributaries offers more than 70 miles of fish habitat.
Eighty-seven fish have been radio-tagged so far, Maynes said.
Of that, 13 bull trout, two winter steelhead, five chinook and one sockeye salmon have been located above the old Elwha Dam site.
Each fish is equipped with a uniquely coded radio transmitter that differentiates it from all other tagged fish.
Radio signals from the tags are then detected by radio receivers and antennas.
Six telemetry stations were installed between the mouth of the river and just above the Glines Canyon Dam site.
These stations continually scan for and record data, documenting when individual fish pass by each station.
Biologists also manually track fish between Rica Canyon and the river mouth using handheld radio receivers and antennas.
Also involved in the radio-tracking program are biologists with the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Washington’s National Park Fund has provided funding, Maynes said.
The last dam will be blasted out of the Elwha River sometime next month, cementing the hopes of generations of advocates and tribal leaders who fought to make it happen.
With the concrete out, the long-term revival of a legendary wilderness valley in the Olympics can now unfold unfettered after 100 years dammed.
The watershed already is springing back to life from the mountains to the sea: Salmon are swimming and spawning miles above the former Elwha dam site. Alders stand more than head high as the native forest reclaims the former lake beds. There’s a soft, sandy beach at the river mouth, where before there was only bare cobble. And birds, bugs and mammals are feasting on salmon eggs and carcasses as fish once again nourish the watershed.
The Elwha is a rare chance to start over on a grand scale. The $325 million federal project, begun three years ago, has reopened 70 miles of habitat for steelhead and salmon, rebuilt wildlife populations and restored native plants. The river is hard at work with its restored natural flow, rebuilding its plunge pools, log jams and gravel bars.
While it will never be the Eden it was, the Elwha one day likely will be pretty darn close — and sooner than many expected.
“It goes against my deepest notions of how fast ecosystem recovery can possibly happen,” said Christopher Tonra, a research fellow with the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center in Washington, D.C., who is tracking the response of dippers, a native, aquatic songbird, to dam removal in the Elwha. “We are all trained, as biologists, to think of things over the long run. I am not saying the Elwha is fully recovered. But it is so mind blowing to me, the numbers of fish, and seeing the birds respond immediately to the salmon being there. It makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.”
The dams were built beginning in 1910 for hydropower, but lacked fish passage. It took an act of Congress, passed in 1992, to finally take down Elwha Dam and then Glines Canyon Dam, about eight miles above it.
Unbuild it, and they will come: Salmon have been storming back ever since Elwha Dam was blasted out of the way in March 2012. Taking down Glines Canyon Dam has taken longer, in part because it holds back a larger load of sediment.
Managing the release of about 27 million cubic yards of sediment as the dams come down is why removal has taken so long. There was so much sediment stuck behind the former Glines Canyon Dam alone that, stacked up, the pile would tower more than twice the height of the Empire State Building, notes Jonathan Warrick, of the U.S. Geological Survey.
The dams were lowered notch by notch, allowing the river to naturally flush about half the total sediment load downriver and out to the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
There have been bumps along the way. A water-treatment plant — the single most expensive part of the project — failed when a critical intake clogged with debris rinsed out by the river, delaying removal by a year while repairs were made.
The tribal hatchery and federal fish-restoration plan, which includes stocking of some hatchery fish, have been a magnet for lawsuits and controversy.
But nature, meanwhile, has carried right on.
Ian Miller, a coastal hazard specialist based in Port Angeles for Washington Sea Grant, has been monitoring the beach at the river mouth.
The surprise to him isn’t the big volume of sediment the Elwha is delivering downstream, but the fact that it is sticking around. “Basically, this is all new land,” Miller said, walking the beach east of the river mouth on a recent visit. “Everything here is less than two years old. You can walk to (sandy) spots on the beach that are 30 feet deep. It is just a dramatically different system.”
A beach that used to be too rocky to comfortably walk on is today used by kids to play soccer.
Meanwhile, fat chinook salmon are cruising up the river. Staff from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife started working the Elwha in July with a gill net to eventually capture 1,600 big Elwha fall chinook. The fish, of both wild and hatchery origin, are taken to stock the next generation of Elwha fall chinook raised in the state rearing channel, used since the 1970s to preserve the unique Elwha strain.
Stars of the river
Working the fast current was a fish rodeo to capture, then quickly take the powerful, thrashing fish from the net unharmed. Long and thick as a thigh, the chinook, the largest in the Puget Sound region, are the celebrities of Elwha River restoration, and a major reason for dam removal.
Elwha fish populations are projected to grow from about 4,000 to 400,000 over the next 20 to 30 years. Salmon already have hatched and migrated up- and downstream of the former Elwha dam site for the first time in a century.
Revegetation — the most visible piece of the Elwha renewal project — also is unfolding dramatically. Already, terraced banks of the former lakes are burgeoning with alder and cottonwood, the gift of seeds carried by the lakes as they gradually were lowered during the drawdown that started dam removal.
Most difficult to revegetate are the cobbly, gravel flats of the lake bed farther upstream, in the former Lake Mills, a land where many a planted Douglas fir and other seedlings have gone to die.
But in other spots, cottonwood seedlings have established so thickly they look like a lawn. Alder trees seeded in 2011 as lake levels dropped now have grown more than head tall. Where there used to be bald sand, goldenrod buzzes with bees, and a young, stocky Nootka rose bush conceals a bird’s nest full of eggs.
In all, more than 500 acres of former lake bed are being replanted, with nearly 60 varieties of native grasses, flowers, woody shrubs and trees from the Elwha Valley through 2018.
Dam removal also is kick-starting broader effects in the ecological systems of the watershed, from its food chain to the home ranges of animals.
Kim Sager-Fradkin, wildlife biologist for the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, already has tracked fish-eating otters to parts of the Elwha that salmon have recolonized since dam removal, and documented an increase in the otters’ nutrient levels derived from fish.
John McMillan, a biologist with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries walking the tributaries since dam removal began, said that in the first year he saw salmon carcasses on the riverbank. But now he doesn’t because the otters, bears, cougars, bobcats and mink have learned to take advantage of food where for so many years there was none.
“The ecological relationships between the animals are coming back,” McMillan said. To me, that is such a great feeling.”
Walk the river
Take a walking tour of the Elwha River with Park Service rangers on the former Lake Aldwell. Tours are on Tuesdays and Sundays at 1 p.m. through Sept. 2. The hourlong walks are free, and begin at the former boat launch at the end of Lake Aldwell Road, north off of Highway 101 just west of the Elwha River Bridge. For more information, call 360-565-3130.
PORT ANGELES — “The Strong People,” an award-winning documentary chronicling the Elwha River dam removals west of Port Angeles, is coming to the Elwha Klallam Heritage Training Center, 401 E. First St., at 11 a.m. Sunday (Aug. 3).
Filmmakers Heather Hoglund and Matt Lowe will be in attendance.
The filmmakers are suggesting a $3 donation to recoup travel and screening fees.
Told through the eyes of the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe, “The Strong People” examines the restoration of the Elwha River as two dams are removed, depicting the project’s environmental repercussions and its effects on the tribe.
To explore the range of consequences of the Elwha River dams’ presence and removal, Hoglund and Lowe interviewed tribal members to learn about the importance of the Elwha and its salmon.
The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe is wrapping up its four-year study on river otters and American dippers in the Elwha River watershed.
The tribe has been studying how the animals use the river for food and habitat and how those needs have been impacted by the recent removal of the river’s Elwha and Glines Canyon dams.
Since the early 20th century, the dams prevented salmon from spawning beyond the first five miles of the river, denying wildlife an important food source. The upper watershed also was deprived of the marine-derived nutrients that salmon carcasses provide to the surrounding ecosystem.
As the dams have been removed and salmon have been able to move upriver, the otters and dippers have been taking advantage of the new resources, said Kim Sager-Fradkin, the tribe’s wildlife biologist.
Between 2011 and 2014, blood, feather, toenail and tissue samples were collected for genetic and diet analysis. The tribe also tagged 11 otters with radio tracking devices and tagged 246 dippers with small leg bands to track migration patterns.
“Despite disruptive dam removal activities, at least one tagged otter continued to frequent areas around Glines Canyon Dam,” said Sager-Fradkin. “Sediment loads in the river, however, appeared to impact which areas of the river that otters used, with otters using more side channel, tributary and saltwater habitats during periods of high sediment loads in the river channel.“Overall though, we found most of them moving throughout the Elwha watershed and Strait of Juan de Fuca, from as far south as the Glines Canyon dam when it was still fully intact, to as far north and east as Port Angeles harbor.”
Dippers also used tributary and side channel habitats during dam removal and increased sediment loads in the river, she added.
Analyses of the animals’ diets showed that both otters and dippers are eating more marine-derived nutrients now than before the dams started to come down.
“Presumably this is either through direct consumption of salmon or through consumption of aquatic macroinvertebrates that have become enriched with marine-derived nutrients,” she said.
In addition, female dippers breeding in areas without salmon had worse body conditions compared to dippers breeding in areas with salmon. Also, adult dippers found in areas with salmon migration had higher survival than those in areas without salmon.
The Elwha Dam has been fully removed since 2013 and the Glines Canyon is expected to be fully removed by the end of 2014.
Three tribes are among the recipients of the Green Apple Awards given for environmental education initiatives by the not-for-profit group E3 Washington, a professional group that provides education on environmental development and stability.
The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, President Fawn Sharp of the Quinault Indian Nation and State Senator John McCoy of the Tulalip Tribes will receive awards, E3 announced on June 11. In addition, Billy Frank, Jr., Nisqually tribal elder and longtime chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, will be honored at a gala and awards ceremony to take place on June 26.
E3 is an outgrowth of the Environmental Education Association of Washington (EEAW), the state’s professional association for environmental and sustainability educators and stakeholders. The initiative was established in 2005, when the Governor’s Council on Environmental Education asked the association to take the lead in planning environmental education, according to the EEAW website. “E3” stands for education, environment, and economy. The EEAW is in turn affiliated with the North American Association for Environmental Education.
The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe was chosen to receive the President’s Award for both honoring elder wisdom and teaching youth self-respect, said retired teacher Marie Marrs, who nominated the tribe.
“The annual paddle journeys, alcohol and drug free, are strong signs of cultural revival,” Marrs said, according to the E3 statement. “The Klallam language is taught at local high schools, as a foreign language. Tribal leaders are visible, and honored, at many community events. Native youth are enrolled in natural resource programs at the area Skill Center, as well as Peninsula College, acquiring specials skills and internships with local economic and environmental power bases such as Battelle, Olympic National Park, NOAA, Merrill Ring, the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, and the Feiro Marine Science Center, as well as their own natural resource/fisheries programs. Skill Center classes are co-taught with a tribal culture specialist as part of the team. Peninsula College has a Longhouse, a House of Learning, for special gatherings and ceremonies, the first in the nation to be built on a community college campus.”
Noting that the very aim of the E3 Washington Lead Green goal is to use every location as a teaching tool, E3 Washington board president Tom Hulst—who selected the Llower Elwha Klallam for the award—said that numerous sites managed by the tribe reach this ideal.
“The E3 Washington Lead Green goal is that every place, be it a building or other site becomes a ‘learning laboratory’ for the shift to sustainability,” Hulst said. “In the case of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe multiple sites under its management meets this goal!”
Sharp will accept the Green Apple Award, which recognizes awareness of indigenous knowledge, language and values, as well as encourages a multicultural approach to environmental and sustainability education, all while exemplifying E3’s Lead Green goal, according to the release. Sharp, who is also president of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians and area vice president of the National Congress of American Indians, was nominated by Olympia-based businessman Steve Robinson.
“President Sharp is a very dynamic leader whose incredible energy level is matched only by her skill as a leader and her enthusiastic approach toward serving her people as well both Indian and non-Indian people, particularly in such fields as sustainability, environmental education and health and human rights,” Robinson said in his nomination. “She has long been active in environmental education at all levels, providing leadership in the classroom, the outdoors and the intergovernmental arena. Just one example of many major successes resulting from her leadership was last summer’s Paddle to Quinault—a highly successful canoe journey that brought traditional canoes from near and far to the Quinault homeland. It was a major cultural event enjoyed by thousands, and was a huge historic achievement in helping to build bridges of understanding between tribal and non-tribal communities.”
For his part state Senator John McCoy, Democrat, will receive the 2014 Diversity in Action-Individual E3 Washington Green Apple Award, which “recognizes an individual, organization, tribe or program that demonstrates cultural awareness and encourages a multicultural approach to environmental and sustainability education programs while exemplifying the Lead Green goal,” the E3 statement said.
“Senator McCoy has been a tireless leader in many capacities which have served environmental education, multiculturalism and diversity well,” said Robinson, who nominated McCoy as well as Sharp. “His presence on ‘the hill’ in Olympia has provided an immeasurable amount of benefit to both tribal and non-tribal people and governments. He has sponsored phenomenal, far-reaching legislation, ranging from bills to integrate Indian culture and history into the classroom to a bill to establish Indian Heritage Day. Senator McCoy is one of the hardest working legislators in Olympia and he is committed to the protection and restoration of a healthy, vibrant environment for all.”
Frank, who passed away on May 5, was involved in E3 and will be honored at the awards ceremony, which will take place The awards will be presented at E3’s Summer Evening Awards Event 2014, A Summer Celebration of Environmental and Sustainability Education, on June 26.
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.
Sat., Nov. 23, 2013 | 10:30 am – 2:30 pm
Included with museum admission; FREE for Burke members or with UW ID
Celebrate the opening of the Elwha: A River Reborn exhibit and the remarkable ecological and cultural restoration unfolding right now in the Olympic Peninsula’s Elwha River Valley. Listen to stories, talks, and attend music and dance performances from members of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe. Also attend talks and book signings from Seattle Times reporter Lynda Mapes, whose book inspired the exhibit.
Schedule of Activities:
10:30-11:30 am: Roger Fernandes, storyteller and member of Lower Elwha of the Klallam Tribe, shares a welcoming song and stories of the Lower Elwha.
11:30 am – 12:30 pm: Lynda Mapes, journalist, author of Elwha: A River Reborn, and close observer of the natural world will tell of writing her articles for the Seattle Times, which then lead to the book and the exhibit. Lynda will also be available to sign copies of her book.
12:30-1:30 pm: The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe’s river restoration director Robert Elofson offers his perspective on the history of the Elwha Dams and the ongoing restoration.
1:30-2:30 pm: The Elwha Drum Group, made up of young and adult members of the Lower Elwha Tribe, will share songs and drumming in the Burke Room.
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.”
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.
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.
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.