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Originally published Wednesday, September 14, 2011 at 4:05 PM

Guest columnist

Restoration of the Elwha's wild runs will need a careful jump-start

The removal of the two Elwha River dams begins this weekend. Guest columnist Will Stelle argues that restoring the river's salmon runs will take active intervention by releasing fish to jump-start the rebuilding. Hatcheries will be a tool of the process, if only temporarily.

Special to The Times

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REMOVAL of the two dormant Elwha River dams on the Olympic Peninsula will unleash a powerful, free-flowing river and once again open the entire watershed to the salmon runs that have been knocking at the base of the dams for a century now. Over the next decade, the transformation of the Elwha River we will witness is difficult to overstate.

That we are at this point, where the first blocks of concrete are to be removed this weekend, is a tribute to the vision and tenacity of the local community, the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks and the other federal and state leaders who have made this their mission.

The restoration of the Elwha has its complexities, including how to rebuild its legendary salmon and steelhead runs. The spectrum of opinion runs from a passive "hands-off" strategy to one of active intervention by releasing fish to jump-start the rebuilding effort. After a decade of work, endless public process and three independent science reviews, the agencies and tribes devised a fish-restoration plan built on an active reseeding strategy that is well-grounded conceptually and open to further refinement as we proceed. Here is why.

The dams' harm to fish will last longer than the structures themselves. Upon removal, mountains of sediment behind the dams will be swept downstream and reshape the lower end of the river and the shoreline/estuarine habitats at its mouth. While efforts have been made to create safe fish refuge and top scientists believe the floodplain may attenuate some of the impacts, entire populations of the remaining wild salmon and steelhead could disappear in this tumultuous period of transformation. Not our desired outcome.

In order to provide a safe harbor for these fish populations through the next few years, the restoration plan calls for hatcheries to protect the remnants of these wild runs in clear, clean water. The use of hatcheries to restore the Elwha's wild runs does seem odd, to be sure, but the risk hatcheries pose are dwarfed by the very real, near-term concern that without them we could lose the Elwha's wild fish for generations.

Some suggest that the populations would survive the onslaught of sediment, that hatcheries are unnecessary and harmful, and that the Elwha would be successfully recolonized without intervention. Perhaps, if we're lucky and patient. But science strongly suggests that any natural recolonization would take decades because the Elwha is relatively isolated from other fish-bearing streams that might provide "stray" fish to the Elwha for repopulation.

Instead, the restoration plan calls for increasing the natural production of fish as quickly as the river allows and phasing out hatchery fish as the wild populations gain strength. Skeptics question the commitment to this trajectory, surmising it masks a "hatcheries forever" approach. Not so.

Federal, state and tribal fisheries managers and other interested parties must spell out this transition strategy with measurable, verifiable metrics under the Endangered Species Act that will be subject to scientific and public review. If the productivity of a restored Elwha is as strong as we expect, there likely will be little need for continued hatchery programs following restoration.

What's the rush? Amid the concerns and consequences of dam removal, we must not lose sight of the severe effects to the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe in the near-term and its treaty-protected fishing right. NOAA Fisheries strongly supports the tribe's treaty right and knows that the right means fishing to the tribe, not just the mere existence of fish.

NOAA Fisheries shares in the tribe's pride and excitement about the restoration plan and looks forward to working with them and others on an acceptable hatchery transition that allows the tribe to be fishing as soon as possible on strong, abundant, wild Elwha River salmon and steelhead populations.

Join the effort, hold our feet to the fire and commit to success in rebuilding the wild runs of the Elwha.

Will Stelle is Northwest administrator of NOAA Fisheries Service in Seattle.




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