In Northwest dam project, fish are back in the water

July 18, 2012
In Northwest dam project, fish are back in the water

PORT ANGELES, Wash. — When it comes to disappearing species and humanity’s harmful imprints on nature, hardly anybody expects anything to go right. People move in, engineers build, wildlife dies: It’s an old story.

Perhaps that’s why two biologists wading through a tributary of the Elwha River on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula not long ago were chortling and grabbing for their cellphones.

The cause for celebration: a gray speckled trout hovering powerfully in the fast-running stream. The 35-inch fish was probably the first wild steelhead to find its way up the middle reaches of the river in 100 years.

As fish stories go, the fleeting sight of a trout in a river wouldn’t usually be huge, but this one marks a crucial chapter in the efforts to reclaim the Elwha from the fatal effects of two hydropower dams.

For the better part of a century, the dams cut off salmon and steelhead from 90 miles of pristine river, much of it in Olympic National Park.

In September, as part of the largest river-restoration project ever undertaken, the 108-foot Elwha Dam was blasted down. Engineers since then have been chipping away at the even bigger Glines Canyon dam about eight miles upstream. The hope is that the $325 million project will restore the legendary fish runs that once saw 100-pound Chinook salmon fighting their way up the majestic river.

No one expected it would be easy. This spring, scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe began transporting coho salmon and wild steelhead up past where Elwha Dam once stood, hoping to rekindle the genetic memories of the fish and inspire them to recolonize the river.

But the fish were thinking faster than they were.

Biologists John McMillan of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center and Raymond Moses, a Nez Perce working for the local Lower Elwha Klallam tribe, were checking one day in June on the steelhead they had tagged and planted in a pristine tributary above the old dam. In that tributary, known as Little River, they saw several of the fish they had transported with hopes the fish would spawn. And then they saw something else.

It was a male steelhead, about 5 pounds bigger than any of the 60 fish they had tagged and planted. It bore nothing to suggest it was anything but a wild fish that had, of its own accord, discovered new territory.

“Ray and I instantly realized he had no floy tag, no radio tag, and we knew from its size it was obviously something that had made its way on its own past the dam,” McMillan said last week.

“We were pretty excited. I’m looking at John — it was like, ‘I don’t remember tagging or handling a fish like that,’” Moses said.

“We both got on the phone — ” McMillan recounted.

“ — and called everybody,” Moses finished.

Two weeks later, the two scientists found a “redd,” or nest of eggs, planted by a steelhead in yet another tributary above Elwha Dam, this one known as Indian Creek.

“That was another piece of evidence that a female had gotten by the dam on its own,” McMillan said.

Two weeks ago, McMillan and Moses encountered a male and female on Little River, spawning at the mouth of the tributary. That male, too, was untagged.

The two scientists have also transported 600 coho salmon above the Elwha Dam site. About half of them swam back to more familiar terrain downriver, but at least 100 of them laid eggs upstream.

The fact that all the steelhead reintroduced to the new habitat were wild is important to conservation groups that have filed a lawsuit opposing attempts to use fish spawned in hatcheries to help recolonize the river. The practice is controversial, with many scientists believing that hatchery fish are genetically much weaker — more susceptible to disease — and likely to impart those weaknesses to wild fish.

“It basically is making them less fit. It’s turning wolves into poodles,” said Kurt Beardslee of the Wild Fish Conservancy, one of the plaintiff groups.

The groups won an interim agreement under which, for this year at least, no non-native hatchery steelhead were released into the river.

McMillan and Moses expressed no opinion on the hatchery debate, but said the success of the wild fish recovery so far suggests a bigger truth: Some of the heaviest blows inflicted on nature may not be permanent.

From an overlook above the Elwha Dam site, the river can now be seen scouring a new channel through millions of pounds of backed-up sediment — only last year, the bottom of a lake behind the dam. “It’s amazing to think that just a year later, you have fish going through there,” McMillan said.

“If we just open up habitat and let them do what they’ve been doing for 10,000 years, that river will recover,” Beardslee said.

Several carloads of tourists were recently peering at the remnants of the once-imposing edifice, and Sharon Petko-Bunney, of Cincinnati, began peppering McMillan with questions.

What were the dams for? (They provided electricity for several mills in nearby Port Angeles.) Why weren’t they needed anymore? (Most of the mills are closed.) How did McMillan know the fish would come back? (On the day of the dam-breaching ceremony, salmon were milling around its base, looking for a way upstream.)

Petko-Bunney nodded and walked back toward her car. “They say 100 species are going to benefit from bringing these fish back,” she said in parting. “I’m glad I’m one of them.”

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An aerial view of a body of water.