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Fish fight on the Elwha

Nathan Rice | Oct 03, 2011

On Sept. 15, an excavator tore the first chunks of concrete from the Glines Canyon dam on Washington state’s Elwha River. It was a historic moment, kicking off the largest dam removal in U.S. history. When the dams are gone, salmon will swim up the Elwha for the first time in nearly 100 years. Seventy miles of pristine habitat awaits them on what was once one of the most productive salmon streams in the Pacific Northwest. There was cause for celebration.

glines canyon damThen came the bad news: The next day, some of the same interest groups who pushed to remove the dams sent a letter of intent to sue the agencies making it happen. The groups claim the multi-agency fish restoration plan violates the Endangered Species Act by allowing the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe to release non-native hatchery steelhead into the restored river. The tribe’s new $16 million, publicly funded hatchery will also rear and release native fish to help them recover after the dams are gone. Critics say that, too, will threaten the protected salmon, steelhead and bull trout runs that the project is meant to restore.

Fish biologists talk about the Four H's of human impact on salmon: habitat loss, harvest, hydropower, and hatcheries. The widely celebrated Elwha plan addresses the first three threats, but it also allows non-native hatchery steelhead to invade the virgin Elwha and compete for food and habitat with native species. The hatchery steelhead are unlikely to successfully spawn in the wild, but there is a potential risk of them interbreeding with protected native Elwha steelhead. These impacts could undermine the whole point of the$325 million dam removal. Scientists from Olympic National Park, National Marine Fisheries Service, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and even the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe itself have opposedreleasing non-native fish in the Elwha.

As hatchery critics wrote in an op-ed in The Seattle Times:

The stated goal of the Elwha River dam removal is to restore healthy populations of wild salmon and steelhead to the watershed. Yet despite an overwhelming body of evidence confirming the harmful impacts of hatcheries, state, federal and tribal governments have agreed upon a plan that relies heavily on hatchery supplementation. Faced with the single greatest opportunity to restore wild salmon, they've opted for business as usual, perpetuating a failing paradigm of replacing native fish with a man-made alternative.

But those same non-native steelhead are also an important food source for the tribe that has lived on the Elwha for millennia. A five-year fishing moratorium starting this year to protect recovering fish runs will already reduce harvest below the dams. Continuing the tribe’s non-native hatchery steelhead run after dam removal will mean more fish sooner than waiting for natural recovery, and government officials say the tribe's treaty fishing rights must be respected.

As The Seattle Times reports:

To many, the risk (of impacting native fish) isn't justified. But at root, to the tribe, recovery isn't just about fish genetics. It's about fish on the table.
"The tribe wants to have fish back to the watershed that they can take advantage of," said Larry Ward, hatchery manager for the tribe.

"There is this whole philosophy of the Elwha being a living laboratory, when in reality, it is the home of the Elwha tribe. After waiting 100 years for the dams to come out, they are not willing to wait another 100 years for the fish to recover."

While it might not take 100 years, biologists estimate that, left to their own reproductive devices, native fish might take decades to reach fishable populations for the tribe. Native fish will be especially vulnerable as huge deposits of sediment are released from behind the dams, muddying the river and burying spawning grounds. For this reason, the hatchery will also be used to rear native fish to be planted above the dam sites to "jump-start" recovery, a plan also criticized by opponents for potentially weakening wild stock.

Groups threatening the lawsuit are allowing 60 days to work out their differences with the agencies. If that doesn't work, they'll let the gavel of the law decide.

 Nathan Rice is an editorial fellow at High Country News.

Photo of Glines Canyon Dam demolition courtesy National Park Service. 

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