In the second part of our series about the historic dam removal project on the Elwha River in Washington State, Earthfix’s Ashley Ahearn looks at the role hatcheries may play in bringing back salmon populations.
GELLERMAN: Wild salmon have been struggling to survive in the Elwha River ever
since the government began damming it back in 1913. Now, nearly a hundred years later,
two dams along the Elwha in Washington State are coming down.
It’s the largest dam removal project in the world. And some say the coho, steelhead
and chum salmon will need help to restore them to their past glory. But others want
nature to take its course. We have the second and final report of Ashley Ahearn’s
series “Undamming the Elwha.”
[WALKING ON GRAVEL]
AHEARN: Larry Ward stands on the banks of a gravel-lined channel two miles from
the mouth of the Elwha River. He’s the head of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe’s new
hatchery, which was finished last May.
WARD: This will be the point at which adults returning from the river enter into the
hatchery itself, and where fish produced and reared at the hatchery leave and first enter
into the Elwha River.
AHEARN: We walk a couple hundred yards from the river to the hatchery where long
concrete troughs hold thousands of juvenile coho salmon, their dappled bodies flickering
in the sun. There are about 600,000 fish in the hatchery – steelhead and coho salmon for
now – but Ward wants to see that number increase.
WARD: Ultimately, I think we’re looking for thousands of adults coming back to the
hatchery facility - chum salmon, coho, steelhead - and producing upwards of a million
and a half or two million fish to be released.
AHEARN: Across the way from the coho troughs, large asphalt ponds sparkle with
steelhead – about 80,000 in each pond. Ward explains that only about 150 wild steelhead
return to the Elwha each year.
WARD: So it’s a critically depressed stock, and so that’s why we’ve gone to this extra
measure to rear the population captively in the hatchery to try and increase the number of
fish that are available.
AHEARN: You might look at these captive steelhead as sort of the “freshman class”
of the new Elwha. They will be one of the first generations to have access to the waters
above the dams, when they return from the ocean in a couple years.
WARD: The hatcheries will be able to support the restoration of fish stocks by providing
fish to supplement the natural productivity in the river. So, the hatcheries are going to
help to accelerate the recovery and restoration process of fish in the river.
AHEARN: This is the largest dam removal in history, so no one really knows how long
it will take wild runs of salmon to return to this watershed. Some scientific estimates
suggest 40-60 years. And for the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, whose reservation is at the
mouth of the Elwha, that’s too long to wait.
They’re hoping the hatchery will restore the salmon fishery here within a decade or so.
Mike McHenry is a fisheries biologist with the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe. He says
there’s been much debate over hatcheries on the Elwha.
MCHENRY: It’s probably one of the most controversial things about the whole Elwha
project - this philosophical divide between folks that want to use hatcheries to accelerate
for recovery, and those that feel like it should be a totally natural re-colonization
AHEARN: McHenry sits right on the fence on this one. He says hatcheries could be a
lifeline for the wild fish population that might suffer during a potentially massive flush
of sediment into the river during dam removal. But he and other scientists take issue with
the type of fish that will be raised in the hatchery.
One fish in particular: the Chamber’s Creek steelhead. This fish is not native to the
Elwha, but it’s become popular as a hatchery fish in the region because it grows about
twice as fast as wild steelhead and returns early.
MCHENRY: There’s concern that they might interbreed with native fish. There’s
ecological concerns. The smolts that are released are very large. They tend to be highly
predacious on other species of salmon. They tend to out compete native species of
steelhead because of the size in some cases.
AHEARN: Fred Utter is an expert on fish genetics. He worked for the National
Marine Fisheries Service for 30 years before becoming a professor at the University
of Washington. He says Chamber’s Creek steelheads are great for maintaining a sport
UTTER: And, it’s a valuable fish in that case, but it by no means should ever be used as a
fish to restore natural populations in the Elwha. I think that would be a serious mistake.
AHEARN: Rob Elofson stands on a bluff overlooking the Elwha. He’s a member of the
Lower Elwha Klallam tribe and director of the River Restoration effort. The tribe has
been without healthy salmon runs for almost 100 years, and they’re tired of waiting.
Elofson says hatchery-raised Chamber’s Creek steelhead have been a good supplement to
the depleted wild runs, but that’s not a permanent solution.
ELOFSON: The idea would be when our harvest of other salmon in the river reaches a
certain point, we could phase out the chambers creek. But, it is my job to make sure that
the tribal fishermen have a fishery.
AHEARN: And as the different runs of salmon balance themselves out, the tribe plans
to phase out the entire fish hatchery. But no one knows exactly how long that will take,
or how hatchery fish might affect the balance of salmon runs here in the long term. As
the fish, both hatchery and wild, make it into the upper reaches of the river in the coming
years, Rob Elofson’s dream is to follow them.
ELOFSON: I’m hoping that I can go up to Elkhorn and catch a salmon and cook it up
for dinner. That would be the ideal, since then I’d still be young enough to hike up to
Elkhorn. So, it’s about 27 miles upstream from the mouth of the Elwha.
AHEARN: From here on out, all eyes will be on the Elwha as this much-studied, much-
debated, and much-loved river resumes her natural course from the Olympic Mountains
to the Pacific. I’m Ashley Ahearn on the Elwha River.
GELLERMAN: Ashley Ahearn reports for EarthFix, a public media project that explores
the environment of the Pacific Northwest.
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