PAT NEAL’S WILDLIFE: An undammed Olympic river with limited fish

SOMEONE RECENTLY ASKED me if taking the dams out of the Elwha River would bring the salmon back.

I wish.

I’d give anything to have salmon fishing like the old-timers talked about.

That was back when you didn’t need a motorboat to fish for salmon.

You could row around Port Angeles Harbor dragging a brass spoon on a hand line and catch all the fish you wanted.

Every year, the Salmon Club put on the biggest party the Olympic Peninsula had ever seen, the Port Angeles Salmon Derby.

It was a community celebration with all the trimmings: A parade, prizes and even drama one year when tourists tried to win the prizes with salmon they gaffed out of the river.

Removing the dams on the Elwha would open up 70 miles of the most valuable real estate on the planet: wilderness spawning water.

The river is protected within Olympic National Park, a Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site.

Scientists have predicted that after the dams are removed, between 350,000 and 400,000 salmon will return to the Elwha every year!

Some of these returning fish would be the descendants of the legendary hundred-pound chinook salmon the Spanish explorers reportedly purchased from the Native Americans back in 1790.

I personally wouldn’t want to catch a 100-pound salmon. It sounds like too much work.

I’d settle for a 50-pounder, though.

Scientists have also predicted that removing the Elwha dams will allow an estimated 18,000 steelhead to return to spawning water that they haven’t seen in almost a century.

That many steelhead will attract hordes of Dolly Varden/bull trout and sea-run cutthroat, and I can’t wait to see something like that again in my lifetime.

Removing the Elwha dams is the largest job of its kind ever attempted in the United States.

No one really knows what will happen to the sediments trapped behind the dams or what it will do to the fish in the lower river.

This is a $350 million (and counting) experiment conducted with the one of the highest aims of science, to restore an ecosystem.

But will it work?

Scientists use the scientific method to answer questions with observations and experiments.

Will dam removal bring the 400,000 fish back to the Elwha?

We can easily test this hypothesis by observing another river that is similar to the Elwha in every aspect except one: There are no dams.

The Queets River flows south from the headwaters of the Elwha. Like the Elwha, the Queets is protected for almost its entire length as wilderness spawning water within Olympic National Park, that Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site.

The first explorers to the region described the massive runs of monster chinook salmon in the Queets.

Using the scientific method, it would be reasonable to assume that there are currently 400,000 salmon running up the Queets every year.

I wish.

Unfortunately this hypothesis is wrong.

Even though there are no dams on the Queets, its salmon are just as threatened as they are on the Elwha.

What constant variable is there that prevents salmon from returning to spawn in a river whether it is dammed or not?

I call it “nylon pollution.”

Olympic Peninsula salmon are being overfished throughout the extent of their range with nonselective commercial harvest methods that do not distinguish between threatened, endangered or abundant stocks.

The scientists have said if salmon can’t be restored on the Elwha, they can’t be restored anywhere.

Given the ravaging effects of nylon pollution on our salmon and the dismal attempts at restoration, the scientists might finally be right about something.


Pat Neal is an Olympic Peninsula fishing guide, humorist and author.

He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or e-mail at patnealwildlife

His column appears on Wednesdays.

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