IT WAS ANOTHER tough week in the news — when plans for the biggest traffic jam in the history of the Olympic Peninsula were made public. This new traffic jam will be bigger than Sequim’s Lavender Festival and Irrigation Festival traffic jams combined. At least it will be for a good cause, fish passage beneath our roads.
It is a worthy cause we all support, don’t we? We all want to save the starving orca. Who could argue with that? Read on.
Beginning in 2023, and lasting anywhere from 12 to 24 months, the fish passage projects on Lees, Ennis and Tumwater creeks will be not unlike enduring “dental pain,” according to a Washington Department of Transportation spokesperson at a recent meeting in Port Angeles.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that, unlike dental pain, where you might spend your way out of the problem, removing fish passage barriers doesn’t mean the fish will pass.
The DOT spokesperson did not want to sugarcoat the coming challenge and there was no danger of that.
Instead, we are asked “to keep a positive perspective of helping the fish.”
That is a challenge. We need only to look at streams on either side of these projects to observe the effectiveness of fish barrier removal. To the west, we have the famous Elwha Dam removal, the largest habitat restoration project in the country, that opened up over 70 miles of pristine spawning habitat for the 400,000 imaginary salmon that were predicted to return, someday.
Unfortunately, the salmon returning to the Elwha are failing to utilize this habitat. This is a situation in common with other Peninsula rivers that have never been dammed. Our salmon are failing to use their available habitat because they are dead, extinct or just plain gone.
We have only to look to the east of Port Angeles at Morse Creek, a stream once famous for runs of Spring Chinook, pink and coho salmon and steelhead. There was never a fish passage problem on Morse Creek. The formerly abundant Morse Creek Spring Chinook were raised at the Dungeness Hatchery.
When they stopped planting salmon in Morse Creek, the salmon disappeared.
Then along came the Elwha Dam Removal experiment. A multimillion-dollar king salmon hatchery was built at Morse Creek to act as a gene bank for the Elwha Chinook in case they didn’t return to the Elwha. They didn’t.
Then it was decided not to use hatchery-raised salmon to restore the upper Elwha and just let the salmon restore themselves on their own. They didn’t.
The Morse Creek king salmon hatchery was eliminated. Runs of hatchery-raised salmon always fail once you shut down the fish hatcheries.
Instead, the state did a “salmon restoration” project, building engineered log jams and buying streamside property for a homeless encampment with predictable results. Morse Creek is as dead as a ditch.
The Dungeness River has no fish passage barriers. It was once the best spring steelhead river in Washington.
The Spring Chinook fishery in Dungeness Bay was legendary.
With effective co-management and the best available science, the Dungeness Spring Chinook and steelhead have achieved threatened and/or endangered species status.
This has opened the floodgates of federal funding for even more salmon restoration projects like building log jams and buying property — with predictable results.
The Dungeness River is currently closed to fishing most of the year.
So, you see this new traffic jam really is a lot like dental pain, with a dentist who says “this is going to hurt you a lot more than it hurts me.”
But it’s all for a good cause.
Pat Neal is a Hoh River fishing and rafting guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.
He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via [email protected]