Several times a year, the kids and I like to visit the Elwha to watch nature’s progress as the river recovers from being dammed for more than 100 years. To me, it’s one of the most uplifting places on earth and a shining example of humans making up for past mistakes. The kids, I think, grasp this on some level, but also look forward to our time out there simply to be outside in a beautiful place.
This visit, though, wasn’t without some sad news. Despite mountains of published, peer-reviewed science demonstrating the negative impacts hatchery fish have on wild fish recovery (because of bad genetics, competition and attraction of unnaturally high levels of predators), earlier this month, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a previous decision that put severe limits on hatchery fish releases in the Elwha. The Elwha hatchery was ready to go, and the day after the court decision, they started releasing vast numbers of juvenile salmon and steelhead into the newly free watershed. Because of the known science–and the stated purpose of dam removal in the first place, which was to recover wild salmon–this is akin to shooting one’s self in the foot.
There’s a new threat to the Ewha as well, in the form of a proposed expansion of Puget Sound open-water salmon farms by Cooke Aquaculture. Specifically, a large net-pen facility that’s under consideration for placement in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, just off the mouth of the Elwha. Like the hatchery issue, there is overwhelming science showing the damaging effects salmon farms have on wild fish populations, and yet, our state seems intent on green-lighting more fish farms for our waters. To put one off the mouth of the Elwha is, yet again, shooting one’s self in the foot. (For more information and to sign a petition to stop the fish-farm expansion, click HERE.)
But Skyla, Weston, Halo and I weren’t about to let the news get in the way of a good time or good feelings. We walked into the lower dam site and marveled at the power of the free-flowing river coursing through the very place that once blocked the current–and salmon–from passing through.
We spent the afternoon playing on the newly formed (and still growing) Elwha delta complex, with all it’s perfect juvenile salmon rearing habitat. (The beach here also happens to be ideal rearing habitat for juvenile humans.) Here, the baby salmon feed and acclimate to saltwater, and it’s always a thrill to watch the small, silver fish rising to insects on the surface of the tide pools, sloughs and channels of the new delta. As the tide pushed in, it flooded the habitat, freeing the fish to continue their migration out to sea. Some tough news for the Elwha, and yet, the simple fact of a free-flowing river is still an uplifting experience and reason to celebrate. But it’s also reason to activate, get involved, and continue the fight for the Elwha’s recovery.
Four years ago, and for 100 years before that, the mouth of the Elwha River was a sterile chute running into the Strait of Juan de Fuca at a 90-degree angle. There was no habitat for juvenile salmon to rest in, feed or acclimate to salt water, and no beach to speak of. It was, in a word, depressing.
But look at it now! The sediment that was trapped behind the dams is making its way to the sea, and creating a spectacular estuary and delta. This is ideal salmon habitat, the kind necessary for thriving runs of wild fish, and all those sloughs, tidal ponds and flats are home to countless juvenile salmon, sea-run cutthroat, bull trout and forage fish. For humans, there are acres of new beach and, on the rare occasion when the swell lines up right, a world-class surf break.
But there’s still plenty to be done. My friends at the Coastal Watershed Institute are working year-round to monitor and restore the nearshore waters, and document the changes taking place. A huge thank you to Anne Schaffer for leading the charge, and to Tom Roorda who provided the aerial photo above. The Elwha dam removal and restoration is one of the great environmental stories of our times. I highly recommend a visit. To witness what’s happening there is just good for the soul.
We spent last weekend out on the Olympic Peninsula, mostly visiting with friends and fishing a bit on the Sol Duc River. But the drive out there gave me time to stop off and introduce the kids to another old friend–the Elwha River. We didn’t have much time, but with dusk rapidly approaching, we pulled over at the bridge and walked up and down looking at the rebirth of a river.
The Elwha was once among the greatest salmon rivers in the world. Aside from the famous run of king salmon that grew to 100 pounds, there were staggering runs of coho, steelhead, sockeye, chum and pink salmon that together totaled nearly 400,000 fish per year. But in 1911, the Elwha Dam, built just upstream of the mouth, cut off 70 miles of the river from the sea. In 1927, to add insult to injury, Glines Canyon Dam was built eight miles upstream. Predictably, the salmon populations crashed.
Today, though, after years of hard work by the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe and a broad coalition of conservation groups, the Elwha Dam is gone and Glines Canyon is almost out. The river flows naturally for the first time in more than a century. This is the largest dam removal project in North American history, and a source of much celebration. From our viewpoint, we could tell the usual clear, green, low-water flows of a dam-controlled watershed are gone, replaced by a wandering stream bed carrying a huge sediment load (100 years of accumulation behind the dams) and wandering across the gravel flood plain, seeking it’s natural channel. It was uplifting to see.
There is a fly in the ointment, though. In spite of the best available science clearly demonstrating the negative effects hatchery fish have on wild salmon recovery, the dam removal-budget included a brand-new, $16 million hatchery. I have a hard time understanding the logic here. It’s as if the Federal Government decided to invest in a $325 million lung-cancer reduction project, only to spend $16 million of it to build a cigarette factory on the premises. I believe this is known as shooting one’s self in the foot.
I say, let the river come back on its own. Nature has been repopulating watersheds destroyed by natural disaster for thousands of years without human “help.” As biologist Bill McMillan points out, when Mt. St. Helens filled the Toutle River with boiling ash flows, killing the stream itself and everything in it, wild steelhead repopulated the river on their own. And quickly. Within seven years, there were more wild winter steelhead in the Toutle than any other lower Columbia tributary.
But I digress. And I will get off the soap box. I just hate the idea of hatchery after so much effort has gone into the dam removal in the name of wild salmon recovery. And it rankles even more when I think that we taxpayers are footing the hatchery bill. The main point, though, is positive. The dams are gone. And the river runs free. I hope that one day, I can fish it again with Skyla and Weston…with hopes of 100 pound salmon swimming through our imaginations.