PORT ANGELES — The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe will conduct a limited fish harvest on the lower Elwha River this October, the first time the river has been open to any fishing in more than a decade.
The tribe, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and Olympic National Park have announced a limited Tribal Ceremonial and Subsistence Fishery for coho salmon on the lower three miles of the river.
The fishery has been closed to commercial and recreational fishing since 2011, when dam removal on the river began.
Recreational and commercial fishing will resume when there is broad distribution of spawning adults above the former dam sites, spawning rates allow for population growth and diversity, and a harvestable surplus of fish are returning to the Elwha River, according to a press release.
Mountain lakes in the Elwha basin within the national park and Lake Sutherland opened to sport fishing the fourth Saturday in April and will remain accessible for fishing through Oct. 31.
The dams, installed more than 100 years ago, devastated the salmon population in the river and the fishery was closed following the dams’ removal to allow fish populations to rebuild their populations.
“The dams were installed the 1912 and 1926 against the wishes of the tribe and without any fish passage facilities, so this is a long time coming,” said Matt Beirne, Natural Resources director for the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe.
“Removing the dams was the first major step, and we, the tribe and our restoration partners, acknowledged that this would be a 20-plus-year process.”
In the years since the removal of the Elwha River dams, multiple salmon species have shown signs of recovery, Beirne said, but only the coho have recovered enough for a harvest.
“We’re starting with coho because of the success that we’ve seen with this population,” Beirne said. “They’re not fully recovered by any means.”
Beirne noted it was still very early in the recovery process, and the success of this fishery will be used to determine if any additional harvests will be held in the future.
Currently, there are no additional fisheries planned, Beirne said, but tribal and other biologists and technicians will be collecting data from caught fish to assess possible future harvests.
Fishing will be open to currently enrolled Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe members, Beirne said, and take place through the month of October. The fishery is limited to 400 fish, and it will last until that quota is reached.
“I look forward to fishing the Elwha River. I have been on the river most of my life. It will provide food for my soul and family,” said Russ Hepfer, Lower Elwha Klallam vice chairman, in a statement.
“It will keep the fishing culture alive not only for me, but for my 16-year-old son. So many youths and adults have given up gill net fishing as the economic value is not there.”
The coho salmon recovery has been aided by the tribe’s hatchery and fish relocation efforts, and the timing of this fishery is designed to minimize impacts to non-target salmonid species, particularly federally listed Chinook and steelhead.
According to the tribe’s website, there are two SONAR camera arrays set up that record the number of adult fish as they pass by, and once a week fish are netted along the lower Elwha to determine the composition of species and collect growth data.
The fishery for coho salmon will be strictly regulated and include a mix of hand-held gear and river nets, the release said. Nets will be limited to half the span of the river. The fishery will be monitored by tribal fisheries biologists and enforcement officers for compliance with regulations and to ensure that impacts to non-target species are minimized.
“The park is truly grateful for the long-term partnership, commitment, and sacrifices made by the tribe throughout the Elwha River Ecosystem Restoration Project,” said Sula Jacobs, superintendent of Olympic National Park.
“We have made a significant conservation commitment to future generations of people and fish, and the park looks forward to reopening sport fishing to park visitors in the upper watershed within the next few years.”
The tribe and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also will evaluate the impacts of various fishing gear types on release survival of non-target species, and data biologists collect from this fishery will be used in developing future commercial and recreational fisheries for coho and other salmon species.
“The tribe has made a significant sacrifice in the fishing moratorium in the last 12 years and is very excited to resume their fishing albeit a very modest, conservative fishing of coho,” Beirne said.
Reporter Peter Segall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.