Bittersweet Elwha Visit

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.