Opinion: Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe could hurt salmon recovery

"This summer, the longawaited dam removal on the Elwha River finally gets underway, marking the culmination of a two-decade effort toward restoring salmon to one of Washington’s most pristine rivers. The Elwha, in many ways, is a chance to rewrite history, undoing a century of destruction wrought by two dams that block migrating salmon from 90 miles of their historic habitat. By all accounts, removing the dams from the Elwha watershed is an extraordinary opportunity, one that will bring about the rebirth of a river, which was once home to some of the largest Chinook ever documented and where a 65-pound salmon was more the norm than a rarity. Throughout their evolutionary history, wild salmon and steelhead have recovered from a range of catastrophic disturbances.

Despite the capacity of these fish to recover naturally, state, federal, and tribal fisheries managers are poised to squander the opportunity. They’ve opted to build a $16 million hatchery that will flood the river with more than 4 million juvenile salmon and steelhead each year, including more Chinook and steelhead than are released on the entire northern coast of Oregon. This is despite 20 years of research demonstrating conclusively that hatchery fish are a major contributor to the decline of wild salmon in our region.

Equally concerning is a plan by the Elwha Klallam Tribe to continue releasing non-native Chambers Creek winter steelhead into the Elwha despite written requests from the every co-managing agency asking that they discontinue the program. Originally native to the south Puget Sound, Chambers Creek steelhead have been released for decades throughout the state to supplement fisheries. These fish are so far removed from their original, wild ancestry that when spawning in the wild they produce close to zero offspring (and, in fact, the original wild Chambers Creek steelhead population is now extinct). On top of this, a five-year fishing moratorium will be in place during the dam removal period, so none of these fish will be caught in tribal or sport fisheries, yet they will return to the Elwha, possibly spawning with one of the few hundred wild steelhead that remain. That would effectively nullify the reproductive investment of the wild fish, which are the backbone of the river’s recovery."

Get the Story:
Will Atlas, Rich Simms, Kurt Beardslee, and Pete Soverel: Elwha River salmon, steelhead better off without hatcheries (Crosscut 8/2)

Related Stories:
Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe welcomes dam removal for salmon (7/29)
Nisqually Tribe leads effort to address impact of climate change (7/21)

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