Ensuring fish restoration after the Elwha dams come out
The removal of two Elwha River dams provides cause to celebrate the prospects of restored salmon and steelhead runs. These guest columnists argue that an independent scientific review and monitoring program would provide the best way forward.
Special to The Times
REMOVAL of the two fish-blocking dams from the Elwha River is probably the most significant restoration action in the history of the Pacific Northwest. Those in favor of promoting and protecting healthy natural ecosystems and sustainable salmon and steelhead runs have every right to be celebrating.
It should be a no-brainer, but as with discussions around nearly all aspects of salmon and steelhead management, execution remains quite complex and wrought with skepticism and uncertainty. In this climate, Elwha fish restoration could benefit greatly from an independent scientific review and a strong monitoring and evaluation program as the restoration plays out.
Elwha restoration occurs against a regional backdrop of increased urbanization; critically low and often Endangered Species Act-listed populations of wild fish; treaty promises of tribal access to fishing; and the continued use of hatcheries to mitigate for habitat loss, or in some cases, simply to increase salmon runs to meet obligations or demands for harvest by tribal, commercial and recreational fishers.
Navigating these tumultuous waters requires a comprehensive approach to fish management that accounts for and integrates habitat conditions, hatchery operations and harvest intensity, both in freshwater and marine environments, including ocean waters of both the U.S. and Canada. Add a good dose of uncertainty about the timeline for habitat and fish-population recovery in the Elwha River, and not ending up on the rocks means having clear goals and checkpoints, monitoring effectively and consulting best available science on a regular basis as a compass to help maintain our bearing.
There continues to exist a fairly broad range of opinions regarding the use of a hatchery to rear fish native to the Elwha River and fish from another river basin during and after dam removal. So if the dams are coming out, why do we need a hatchery?
Part of the logic goes something like this: 24 million cubic yards of sediment has built up behind the two dams over the past century, and most of the sediment transport in the river currently occurs during late fall and winter storms, when fish are in the river and eggs are incubating. This is a potential recipe for disaster.
Downstream fish stocks took an immediate and significant hit when Mount St. Helens erupted, and those runs were in arguably decent condition, with large populations in unaffected parts of the Cowlitz basin available to recolonize. Compare that with the small remnant wild populations occupying the last five miles of the Elwha.
Regardless of what people think about the size of the new hatchery, or the use of out-of-basin stocks (i.e. Chambers Creek steelhead) to support harvest, having a scientifically defensible strategy to safeguard the unique genetics of the native Elwha fish makes some sense.
No matter what, there is little debate about the current need for effective monitoring and responsive, adaptive management of fish populations during recovery, however it is approached.
The initial focus has been on identifying financial resources for dam removal and advance monitoring of the effects of river restoration on habitat and ecosystem health, both in the river and out in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Unfortunately, little funding has been designated to monitor and evaluate the status and trajectory of native fish populations during and after restoration.
In addition, due to the nature of the nation-to-nation relationship between the federal government and tribes, restoration plan development was negotiated with little outside input or review. That has resulted in the current criticism of the plan appearing to intensify in the final seconds before removal.
An independent technical review could go a long way to restoring confidence and support for the restoration program once the dams are out of the way.
Jacques White is the executive director of Long Live the Kings, Michael Schmidt is Director of Fish Programs for Long Live the Kings, Lars Mobrand is the Outgoing Chair, Hatchery Scientific Review Group
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