PAT NEAL’S WILDLIFE COLUMN: Earth Day, dammed rivers and overharvesting

I REMEMBER THE very first Earth Day back in the 1970s. Fishing must have been slow, since I was in school.

They herded us into a big hall and had us watch a movie that said the Earth was being poisoned.

That was good news at the time.

Back then, they had been telling us we were going to get blown up in a nuclear holocaust.

That’s unless you had a bomb shelter.

Then you could party down on war-surplus water and crackers while your radioactive loser friends beat on the door for you to let them in, but we wouldn’t.

Poisoning the Earth didn’t sound as bad as getting blown up, except I wondered what it would do the fishing.

We need look no further than our beloved Elwha River for a snapshot of how bad things have gotten since that first Earth Day.

The Spanish explorer, Manuel Quimper, bought some 100-pound salmon from the Native Americans off the mouth of the Elwha back in July 1790.

Obviously, Quimper could not keep his mouth shut.

He told everyone in Europe. People have been coming to fish the Elwha ever since.

The Elwha dams were built without any way for the fish to get over them. Shoals of giant salmon died and rotted without spawning in the first few years after the dams’ construction.

Still, even after the upstream-run salmon were wiped out, there was some tremendous fishing in the lower Elwha, below the dams.

Back on the first Earth Day in April of ’71, the lower Elwha was open for steelhead fishing.

You could keep two fish a day.

In addition to steelhead, all five species of Pacific salmon and Dolly Varden as big as salmon ran up the Elwha.

There were still rare specimens of 100-pound salmon observed in the river.

Forty years later, in 2010, the Elwha closed to fishing on Feb. 28.

For us sensitive types, who believe a day’s fishing is not counted against our lifespan, this is yet another example of history as a process of decay.

At present, four out of the five species of Elwha salmon are threatened, endangered or just plain gone.

This Earth Day marks the beginning of the $350 million Elwha dams removal project.

That may sound like a lot of money, but it will open 50 miles of the most pristine salmon spawning river in the continental United States.

It is worth whatever it costs.

The National Park Service claims that the dams’ removal will allow 400,000 salmon — including the famed 100-pound kings — to return to the Elwha.

This is a very noble goal, yet the Elwha is only one of many rivers on the Olympic Peninsula.

All had massive runs of giant salmon that disappeared without any dams being built on them.

Habitat loss has been blamed, yet just over the divide from the Elwha, we find the Queets, a river with no dam or habitat loss.

The Queets is protected for almost its entire length by Olympic National Park.

It doesn’t have 400,000 salmon running upstream.

Logically, there would have to be some other factor that would explain the absence of salmon in pristine water that is not dammed.

That would be nylon pollution.

There is just too much nylon fishing gear in the water for salmon to maintain traditional runs.

Unless we stop nylon pollution — the gross over-harvest of our fisheries — the salmon can’t come home.

The Elwha River will become just another example of the Park Service’s failure to protect endangered species within its boundaries.

Happy Earth Day.


Pat Neal is a North Olympic Peninsula fishing guide and humorist whose column appears every Wednesday.

Pat can be reached at 360-683-9867 or [email protected]

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