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It's the first time that adult chinook, also known as king salmon, have been seen so far up the river — 12.5 miles from the mouth of the river and 7.5 miles from the site of the former Elwha Dam, which was completely demolished in March.
“We saw three observations of chinook on Monday and three [on Tuesday],” said Sam Brenkman, park fisheries biologist.
He said the water quality made it impossible to discern if the two sightings were of the same group of fish or of different groups.
“The take-home message,” Brenkman said Tuesday, “is that in two consecutive days, observations of chinook salmon were made.
“The fish are there.”
The fish seen about 2 miles within the park boundary are the first observed Elwha River salmon to naturally migrate upstream into the park, said Rainey McKenna, park spokeswoman.
The park was created after the dams were built. When Elwha Dam became operational in 1913, 25 years before Olympic National Park was created by Congress, more than 70 miles of Elwha River habitat were blocked to fish passage.
Salmon and steelhead were restricted to spawning in the 5 miles of the river below Elwha Dam, just west of Port Angeles and outside the national park.
Steelhead were discovered above the now-demolished dam earlier this summer, but adult steelhead have not been observed within the park, Brenkman said.
Phil Kennedy, lead fisheries technician for the park, spotted the chinook.
“We knew this was going to happen, and as I saw the fish roll, my heart jumped,” Kennedy said after seeing the fish Monday.
Kennedy has been conducting surveys in the park over the last three weeks, Brenkman said.
“We're continuing these surveys to better understand the distribution of the chinook salmon in the park right now,” Brenkman said, adding that personnel are surveying the river from the Glines Canyon Dam site to the park boundary.
There is no weight estimate of the adult chinook salmon, though all were large, traveling upstream, and “a little darker in coloration, which means they are maturing to spawn,” Brenkman said.
“We're sure they were chinook salmon based on their behavior, their timing in the river, their large size and their coloration,” Brenkman said.
It was not known whether they were hatchery-raised or wild salmon, he said.
Brenkman said the salmon likely would travel as far upstream to Glines Canyon Dam and then return downstream a bit to find a good location in a side channel or tributary for spawning.
A fish weir was put into place below the area of the former Elwha Dam on Aug. 2 by the state Fish and Wildlife Department.
“We think these fish moved through the area before the fish trap was installed,” Brenkman said.
The expectation is that between 1,500 and 2,500 salmon will come into the river this season, Rainey said.
In the park's announcement Monday, headlined “Return of the Kings,” Todd Suess, Olympic's acting superintendent, said:
“This has been an extremely exciting summer. First, we see a renewal of a culture with the uncovering of the creation site of the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe, and now, we see the renewal of the legendary chinook in Olympic National Park.”
The tribe is a partner with the National Park Service in the $325 million federal project to remove the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams and restore the Elwha River and its fish runs.
The chinook salmon run in the Elwha was legendary, with stories of salmon weighing 100 pounds and swimming in schools that filled the river, before the two dams were built without fish ladders.
In recent years, the Elwha's king salmon population had plunged to a few thousand annually.
Creation spot discovered
Earlier this month, it was announced that the tribe's creation site — a rock with two deep depressions — was found among the 1,100 acres of land that emerged after Elwha Dam was removed and the lake behind it had drained.
Sacred to the tribe, the site is where, by tribal teaching, the Creator bathed and blessed the Klallam people and where tribal members for generations sought to learn their future.
It had been submerged behind Elwha Dam for 99 years.
In addition, the Park Service also reported finding a site in a nearby location that documents human use as far back as 8,000 years ago, establishing it as one of the oldest-known archaeological sites on the Olympic Peninsula.
The Elwha dam-removal project — the largest of its kind in U.S. history — is well ahead of schedule.
By summer 2013, the glacier-fed Elwha River is expected to flow freely as it courses from the Olympic Mountains to the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Glines Canyon Dam, 8 miles upstream from the now-demolished 108-foot Elwha Dam, will be gone by early next summer.
Glines has been knocked down by explosives and huge hydraulic hammers to less than half its original height — about 90 feet of the 210-foot-high dam are left.
The dam-removal work originally was scheduled to run through 2014.
After the two dams were built, all five native species of Pacific salmon and steelhead, a sea-going rainbow trout, were confined to the lower five miles of the Elwha.
Once Glines Canyon Dam, 13 miles up river, is removed, salmon, steelhead and other fish that mature in the ocean and return to rivers to spawn will once again have access to more than 70 miles of spawning and rearing habitat, much of it within the protected boundaries of Olympic National Park.
Scientists knew ocean-going fish eventually would return to the Elwha River once the two massive concrete dams were torn down.
They just didn't think it would happen so soon.
Biologists tracking fish in a tributary of the Elwha in June spotted wild steelhead that they said made it on their own past the site where Elwha Dam stood for nearly a century.
“We're wildly excited,” said Mike McHenry, fish habitat manager for the Lower Elwha tribe, said after the steelhead were spotted.
“It just confirms what we have known all along: that these fish are quite capable of recolonizing the Elwha once we get the dams out of the way.”
Juvenile chinook also have been seen in the river between the Glines Canyon Dam and the former Elwha Dam site.
It is believed they are the offspring of 24 adults captured in the fish weir last year and relocated upstream of Glines Canyon, McHenry said last week at the Elwha tribe's ceremonial welcoming of the chinook.
Fully recolonizing the river is expected to take years. All fishing in the river has been closed for five years.