IT WAS ANOTHER tough week in the news. Despite years of headlines proclaiming the return of the salmon to the Elwha, the fishing moratorium was extended for another two years.
The Elwha River moratorium came as no surprise to anyone familiar with the salmon restoration industry’s failure to restore salmon on other Peninsula rivers.
Fishing is just another casualty of the Elwha River Dam removal experiment that resulted in the loss of two campgrounds, a boat launch and the Olympic Hot Springs road itself.
Even the U.S. Highway 101 bridge over the Elwha is being threatened by the newly freed river.
All of this collateral infrastructure damage, which would include the Port Angeles water supply, is part of the unintended consequences of this great experiment.
The stated results of which would be the return of the estimated historic run of 400,000 salmon to the Elwha within 40 years.
That was good news, but then you had to wonder.
Did any of the other Olympic Peninsula rivers that were not dammed retain their historic runs of salmon? No.
Is anyone rebuilding our historic runs of salmon on these undammed rivers? No.
We need only to look at the Elwha’s neighbors, the Dungeness and Queets rivers, to see that there might be something more than dam removal affecting fish populations.
Unlike the Elwha, the Dungeness River was never dammed. The Dungeness once supported hundreds of thousands of salmon.
The Queets River, which was never dammed, lies south just over the divide from the Elwha. The Queets is protected within Olympic National Park for most of its route to the Pacific Ocean.
Pioneers claimed the Queets was the best fishing river on the Olympic Peninsula, but then other pioneers said the same thing about the Dungeness and Elwha.
Back in the old days, all of our Olympic Peninsula rivers shared a common heritage of abundant fisheries.
My friend Harvey Pettet gaffed an 85-pound king salmon out of the Dungeness. That race of 80-pound Dungeness fish are as extinct as the Elwha’s legendary 100-pound salmon.
These giant salmon were once recorded from the Sacramento River north to the Yukon. They are no more.
The Elwha was dammed but it shares a common history of fisheries exploitation and neglect that has created threatened or endangered species on the Dungeness and Queets.
Which begs the question: Is there something other than dams and degraded habitat endangering our fisheries?
Who could argue with not fishing the Elwha, Dungeness or the Queets for a few years in an effort to bring the fish back?
This would not be such a bitter pill if there was a salmon restoration policy that actually restored the salmon.
Back in the 1990s, the Dungeness River was closed to sport fishing for most of the year as a conservation measure.
Who could argue with that?
We had the assurance that once the runs were rebuilt we could fish again.
Millions were spent buying property from willing sellers, putting the irrigation ditches into plastic pipes, taking out culverts, building log jams and planting native vegetation.
Millions more are about to be spent relocating a flood control dike.
The net result being 20 years after the initial closure, species of fish in the Dungeness are still considered threatened or endangered and the river is still closed to fishing most of the year.
Is there something besides habitat and dams affecting our fisheries? Nobody asks that question.
Normally conducting a failed experiment while expecting different results fits a definition of insanity.
Here on the Olympic Peninsula we call it salmon restoration.
Those who ignore history probably don’t fish, either.
Pat Neal is a Hoh River fishing guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.
He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via patneal [email protected].