THE UNANTICIPATED REBOUND of Elwha River summer steelhead is one of the most surprising success stories to emerge in the years following the removal of the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams.
Dam removal began in September 2011 and, by 2016, salmon and steelhead regained access to the Elwha’s backcountry for the first time in more than 100 years as the 45-mile-long river was once again made whole from its headwaters to its mouth along the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
“Rising from the Ashes,” a new short film created by Shane Anderson and Jesse Andrew Clark for Trout Unlimited, chronicles the multi-agency team of scientists researching and discovering what filmmakers describe as a “resurgence” of the summer-run species in recent years.
Four teams of researchers from Olympic National Park, Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, NOAA, state Department of Fish and Wildlife and Trout Unlimited conducted snorkel surveys and electrofished 43 miles of the river in September 2019, estimating a return of 920 wild summer steelhead last year.
That number could mean the Elwha River contains the largest population of summer steelhead than any water body draining into Puget Sound or along the Washington coast.
Thought to be “basically extinct,” even before the dam removal project got underway, this rebound is astounding, especially when poor Pacific Ocean conditions are factored in for this sea-going species and when compared to Elwha winter steelhead returns and summer steelhead returns on different rivers.
“[Conditions in the] North Pacific looked bad, and we are seeing some of the worst runs we’ve ever seen on the Olympic Peninsula and these numbers are shooting through the roof,” Joyce resident and Trout Unlimited’s Wild Steelhead United initiative science director John McMillan said in an interview with steelhead angler Lee Geist. “How many [more] survivors would we have [in 2019 if] ocean conditions were like the early 2000s?
“When I’m snorkeling [the Elwha] and seeing all the fish, so many more fish than I see in the Hoh or the Sol Duc, Calawah or the Bogey [Bogachiel] [it makes we wonder] what happens to fish when you stop fishing for them and killing them for a period of time?”
Teams 1 and 2 counted 309 wild summer steelhead in the 15-mile headwater reach only three years after fish passage was complete.
Scientists think the steelhead returners are coming from rainbow trout ancestors that were previously locked above and between the dams.
McMillan cautioned that not every sample had been tested.
“Before the dams came out, there was a clear structure of rainbow trout above the dams and steelhead genotype below,” McMillan said. “That rainbow trout genotype is showing up lower down in the river. It would appear that rainbow trout are contributing to resurgence of summer steelhead that we saw in there.”
Rainbow trout are the same species as steelhead, but live different lifestyles, as rainbow trout spend most of or their entire lives in freshwater.
The resilience of the Elwha’s summer steelhead has fish biologists singing their praises.
“Summer steelhead recolonization has happened so fast naturally, they are definitely the champion fish of Elwha fish restoration,” Lower Elwha Klallam fish biologist Allyce Miller said.
And McMillian, an avid angler who said there is nothing better than fishing for summer steelhead on a warm summer day, is confident that fisheries will return to the Elwha, which is currently under an all-fishing moratorium through July 1, 2021.
“We removed the dams so people can interact with them again,” McMillan said. “I know the [Lower Elwha] Tribe feels the same way. I do believe we will be fishing the Elwha at some point in our lifetime. My hunch is we are still looking at the first fishery being three to five years away. That’s a rough guess, could be eight years away. We have to be patient, we don’t want to open the river too early. [Continue to] give the river a chance to recover and reach its potential.”
As he states in the film, McMillan is excited for the river’s future.
“I don’t think in my lifetime I’ve ever had more hope for the future than I do now,” McMillan said.
Sports reporter Michael Carman can be contacted at 360-406-0674 or [email protected].