Another night, another great book event at Patagonia Ballard: So much of the fish conservation work we do involves theoretical, or “paper” fish. We work on populations, runs sizes, escapement goals, and deal with government policies and legal angles. Last night, I spent a thoroughly enjoyable evening reading from and talking with Lee Spencer about his beautiful book, A Temporary Refuge, and a very different kind of fish conservation.
Lee is the guy who, for the last 19 seasons, has stood (or sat) guard over 150 to 500 extremely vulnerable wild summer steelhead as they seek thermal refuge in a cool-water pool of a North Umpqua tributary. You might have seen him in DamNation. His presence deters poachers, who, in the past, used explosives to harvest these fish, earning the pool the local name “The Dynamite Hole.” Lee’s work is fish conservation in its truest sense–personal, specific, intimate. Lee stays, and the fish are not blown up.
But Lee is more than just a guardian; he is an observer, writer and thinker of the highest order. His field notes, taken over the days and years he’s spent quietly watching the pool and its fish, written in clean, deceptively simple prose, make a gem of a book. Talking with him before, during, and at dinner after the event, was even better.
Way back in September, I was lucky enough to spend some time up in Northern BC working on a film with a bunch of good friends. That film, CHROME, made by Conservation Hawks and Conservation Media, is now finished. It’s also been selected for the 2016 Fly Fishing Film Tour, where it will debut in cities and towns across the country. Huge thanks to all the sponsors, and to Kate Taylor, Tim Romano, Tom Rosenbauer, Todd Tanner, Hannah and Alice Belford, film maker Jeremy Roberts and camera man Rick Smith for such good company.
We had a fantastic time in the deep wilderness chasing wild steelhead and talking about climate change and how it will impact cold water fisheries. With the fish running late, the whole adventure turned into an epic quest to find steelhead.
But for me, it was really more about the people and the place and and an opportunity to help motivate people to engage on the climate change issue. I think the film does a good job of capturing all of it, which hopefully you can see in the trailer above.
With wild steelhead populations in Puget Sound hovering around 3% of historic numbers, and most of our beloved local rivers now closed during prime fishing times, there’s more than a little reason for concern. One of the main factors causing these precipitous declines is, somewhat counterintuitively, the hatcheries put in place to produce more salmon and steelhead. I will be talking about the high cost of hatcheries, both to the wild fish and tax paying citizens of the Pacific Northwest next week:
Northwest Fly Anglers October Meeting, Haller Lake Community Center, 12579 Densmore Avenue, Seattle 7:00pm, Thursday, October 16th. Non-members welcome.
If you’re concerned about our wild fish and shrinking fishing opportunities, or interested in learning what we can do to improve the situation, please come out to the meeting. I look forward to meeting you in person.
We spent part of last week visiting with friends in a small cabin on the east side of the Cascades. On the drive up, the family slept and I was left alone to think and stew as I drove past all my old favorite fishing spots on the Skykomish River. The spring wild steelhead catch-and-release season–a fishery I once lived for–should just be starting now. But it closed in 2001 to protect the dwindling steelhead population, and has yet to reopen. I don’t know if it ever will. So the places–Buck Island, Two-Bit, I.R.S., Thunderbird–where I spent so many happy times are now off limits. And driving past them hurts.
The emotional grinding that plagued me on the drive evaporated, though, with a warm greeting from good friends and the heat of the wood stove. Weston was under the weather (he’s since recovered) so we stuck pretty close to the cabin, finding some epic sled runs and great hikes nearby. The picture above is Skyla and her buddy Aubine kicking it up the hill behind the house. Mostly, it felt great to be outside in the dry air and sunshine of Eastern Washington.
On the drive home, back down Highway 2, I had prepared myself for the sight of those great steelhead runs flashing past the windows. And the pangs were less intense, but still much deeper than when I’m working on fish issues from my desk. I guess it’s just good to go see what you’ve lost sometimes to help kick yourself into gear.
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.