PORT ANGELES, Wash. — Larry Ward stands on the banks of a gravel-lined channel two miles from the mouth of the Elwha River at what will one day be the point at which adult salmon returning from the ocean come back to spawn, mixing with young smolts on their way out to the open waters.
Ward is the head of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe’s new hatchery – which was finished last May. A couple hundred yards from the river, inside the hatchery facility, 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.
“Ultimately I think we’re looking for thousands of adults coming back to the hatchery, chum salmon, coho, steelhead, hopefully pink and producing upwards of a million and a half or two million fish to be released,” he says.
Part I (Tuesday): Scientists are getting the “before” shot of the Elwha so they can see how things change once the river is dam-free.
Part II (Wednesday): Keeping track of river otters to better understand a changing river and its impact on the forest ecosystem.
Part III (Today): The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe is counting on hatcheries to hasten the return of its subsistence fisheries.
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. It’s a critically depressed stock, Ward explains.
“That’s why we’ve gone to this extra measure to go out and go through this effort to rear the population captively in the hatchery to try and increase the number of fish that are available,” he says.
The Elwha’s First Class Steelhead
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 says hatcheries play a role in speeding up the recovery of salmon stocks in this river once the dams come out. However, 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 point to 40 to 60 years. To members of 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.
“It’s probably one of the most controversial things about the whole Elwha project, this philosophical divide between folks that want to use hatcheries for recovery and those that feel it should be a totally natural recolonization experiment,” he says.
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 — focusing on one fish in particular: The Chambers Creek steelhead. This fish, from a Tacoma, Wash. stream of the same name, is not native to the Elwha but it’s become popular as a hatchery fish in the Northwest because it grows about twice as fast as wild steelhead and returns early.
McHenry says there’s concern about Chambers Creek steelhead interbreeding with native fish. Chambers Creek smolts also grow faster than wild steelhead and tend to prey on other types of salmon.
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 Chambers Creek steelhead are great for maintaining a sport fishery,
“But,” he adds, “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.”
The Waiting Game
The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe has been without healthy salmon runs for almost 100 years and they’re tired of waiting. Rob Elofson, a member of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe and director of the River Restoration effort, says hatchery-raised Chambers Creek steelhead have been a good supplement to the depleted wild runs, but that’s not a permanent solution. “The idea would be that when our harvest of other salmon in the river reaches a certain point then we can phase out the Chambers Creek.”
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, Elofson’s dream is to follow them.
“I’m hoping that I can go up to Elkhorn and catch a salmon and cook it up for dinner. That would be ideal,” Elofson says, smiling, “because then I’d still be young enough to hike up to Elkhorn.… it’s about 27 miles upstream from the mouth of the Elwha.”
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.
(Text and audio by Ashley Ahearn. Video and photos by Katie Campbell.)
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