Two years after Elwha dam was torn down, the fish storm back
Chinook salmon spawn in Elwha River in September 2013. (NPS)
Two years ago, after a decades-long struggle that involved Native Americans, biologists, Earthjustice, and eventually Congress itself, engineers began to dismantle two century-old dams on the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state. The river is only 70 miles long, but most of it is in the Olympic National Park, and so is in pretty good shape, having avoided the fate of other Pacific Coast streams, that have been badly damaged by logging.
A remnant population of salmon survived to spawn in the four miles of river between the downstream dam and Strait of Juan de Fuca. People hoped this would be a sufficient number—on the order of 4,000 fish—to recolonize the river above the dams, once the dams were gone, the result of the largest dam-removal operation ever undertaken in the U.S. Fish biologists predicted that runs on the Elwha should eventually reach nearly 400,000 fish annually, and this year it’s beginning to look as if they might be right. A veritable flood of all five species of Pacific salmon, plus seagoing steelhead trout, have found their way up the Elwha and its tributaries and found suitable spawning grounds—gravel beds where they lay and fertilize their eggs in depressions called redds. More salmon have returned over the past two months than at any time in at least 20 years.
This is terrific news for members of the Lower Elwha Klamath Tribe, who suffered mightily when the dams were built and caused the decimation of the salmon runs they depend on; for the entire Elwha ecosystem; for sport and recreational fishermen, who should find more salmon to catch; and for orcas in Puget Sound, whose decline was in some measure the result of the lack of food, namely salmon.
The National Park Service has a website devoted to Elwha restoration. Progress on salmon restoration can be found in this Park Service blog. And a blog post from Earthjustice’s Jim McCarthy from 2012 provides much useful background.
Fitting that this lovely news comes just before Thanksgiving.