Seeds of the past.

You have all ready heard, and read, that the Elwah dam is coming down for real now, bit by bit, and that although everyone is happy the dam is going, most folks who give a shit about native fish are some where between seriously pissed, and very disappointed that the Elwah tribe plans to start a major hatchery program to (and I am using quotations to indicate sarcasm) “restore” salmon and steelhead runs.
Here is my take.

This is the guy. Upper river (above both dams) Elwah river rainhead, or steelbow, or what have you.  If you walk way up the Elwah there are about a jillion of these guys and they are, according to the geeks, genetically identical to the Elwah summer steelhead.  That is to say, in a world where native summer steelhead are pretty much extinct, a healthy, hell, robust population has escaped exploitation and has been hiding away in a sanctuary high in the Olympics. Now the Dams are coming out, and these fish will once again have access to the ocean.  It’s like a chance to go back in time.

If these fish go to sea, and are able to return in strong numbers it will be the greatest triumph in northwest fisheries ever, for real, no shit.  If they go to sea and don’t return it could be a huge step in understanding why the native Puget sound steelhead populations have collapsed.  If we dump a bazillion hatchery smolt in on top of them the hatchery fish will damage and mutate the genetics, interfere with native rearing and basically destroy all chances of discovering anything of use or merit.

Why would the Elwah tribe do this?  Their biologists know better, they are not idiots.  Well here are some thoughts.  Fisheries are big business for the tribes, bigger than you think and becoming more lucrative as they gain control over an ever increasing portion of the west coast sea food market. The northwest tribes as a whole, have in the past expressed a fear that damn removal could become a precedent for hatchery closure. Federally subsidized hatcheries create, in effect, federally subsidized fisheries. Tax payers pay to produce the fish at enormous cost, and commercial fishermen harvest them and sell them back to the tax payers for a profit.

And the Elwah tribe want a fishery, why not?  They used to have one.  The thing is the subsistence fisheries of the past just didn’t operate like the tribal commercial fisheries of today.  I mean if you are just catching fish to eat it doesn’t matter if they are salmon, steelhead, jacks, smolt, or even bull heads.  It’s all protein.  But it matters to the commercial market.  That market needs big bright salmon and steelhead and it needs a large and constant supply to thrive.

In this day an age tribal commercial fisheries in Washington often try to harvest 25% or more of a rivers entire salmon or steelhead run.  This type of harvest might work for a few years, but it will inevitably lead to fisheries collapses.  It is not sustainable without hatcheries, and fisheries biologists from Alaska to California are in agreement that large scale hatchery programs will always harm native runs.

So this is in effect a line in the sand.  Do we let the river recover on its own?  It’s my guess that it will, and much faster than we think, but it will probably never support a large scale commercial fishery.  It will teach us lessons about recovery, about how salmon and steelhead and cutthroat and bull heads and sturgeon and smelt and whitefish and bull trout all recolonize habitat, who comes first, who dominates where, who impacts whom and how.
And it may in time provide a sport fishery and enough salmon to allow the tribe to sell some.
Or do we turn it into a fish factory, like we have so many other rivers, pour money into hatcheries that squash the native runs so we can take out as many fish as possible?

Summer steelhead water on the upper Elwah?

The Wild Steelhead Coalition, The Native Fish Society and others are now suing the national Park for letting the tribes run this hatchery. It is their hope that the Park can stop the tribes.  You can find out more at the Wild Steelhead coalition web site wildsteelheadcoalition.org

I would like to see this river recover, or try to, on its own.  At least for 8 or 10 years.  If the tribes want to run a very small brood stock operation as insurance that they can keep their genetics alive well, that would be a bummer, but much better than the “jump start” idea they are going with now.  If they need a big check every year to make up for lost fisheries or hatchery revenue, I say we give them that too.
The thing about the hatchery is, it will not be too late to start one ten years from now, but we will NEVER get this chance to go back in time again. 

Jim Kerr
Rain Coast guides

Posted in Salmon Fishing, Summer Steelhead Fly Fishing Report, Winter Steelhead Fly Fishing Report | 16 Comments

16 Responses to Dam

  1. Larry says:

    I could never have made the point better. I have fished that upper river for nearly 30 years and have caught and released many of those wild little upriver steelhead. They are tough little (and not so little!) suckers and they are amazing acrobats! They would love to become their great great great great grandfathers and mothers, I’m sure. I have seen old photos of early Port Townsend pioneers who rode up the Elwha for deer, elk, and “salmon trout”. Those salmon trout were obviously huge steelhead, and there must have been millions of them, judging by the catches recorded in those old photos.

    I hope we will all come to the rescue of this amazing riparian fish highway. What a shame that the natives, who have the most to gain culturally from natural restoration, are threatening recovery. I hope they will change their minds. Perhaps a hatchery could be built on one of the other watersheds to replace their Elwha hatchery? They shouldn’t care whether their hatchery fish come back to the Elwha or some other stream, huh?

  2. Derek Young says:


    Thanks for the heartfelt write-up. As I was standing at the top of the new observation trail above the Elwha this past Sunday, I took a brief video of a small group, led by NPS employees, singing “Bring Back our Elwha.” There’s a distinct lack of understanding of the issues in people’s voices, only that the salmon will “come back.” The public doesn’t understand what this means, only that it puts fish on plates.

    Your leadership and voice on the OP is well-respected and with this, I stand with you in the effort to keep the Elwha wild and develop a fair solution.

  3. Dylan Rose says:

    Beautifully done Jim! 100% with you on this.

  4. Thomas Mitchell says:

    Great post Jim. Thanks for the insight from an OP resident and steward of the resource.

    Sorry you didn’t get your elk…

  5. Jim Kerr says:

    Thanks Thomas,
    I got my Elk Hunt,  I would take a lifetimes worth of elk hunts and no elk over a lifetime’s worth of elk meat any day.

  6. Dan Whitaker says:

    Awesome synopsis of the issues Jim, very informative. What can we do specifically to help the cause?

  7. Jim Kerr says:

    Damn Dan, (no pun intended)
    I have been thinking about nothing else for a while now and I am not really sure.  But I know we have to put some pressure on the tribe to do the right thing, or at least ask them to compromise.  I will keep you posted if nothing else we can work a little e-mail/letter to the editor campaign.

  8. Ken says:

    Good points, Jim.
    All you have to do to see how great tribal-centered hatchery fisheries work is look over here at our lovely Nooksack river. It’s demise is one of the reasons why Whatcom county fishermen spend so much time in Forks. Not that there’s anything wrong with spending time in Forks.

  9. Dan Whitaker says:

    Ready for action in any form, just say the word.

  10. martyg says:

    Dude – well done!

    I am sitting in the middle of the Fort Pierre National Grassland in SD after a day of hunting Sharptails and Prairie Chickens – and all that I can think of is fishing…

  11. Jim Kerr says:

    I watched about 30 steelhead swim around a perfect tail out today, we need to cast about 15 feet further, we couldn’t.
    Managed to get two to eat but it could have been an f-ing slaughter.

  12. Bob Jones says:

    AGREE WITH BOTH OF YOU and have been following this for many years and it’s taken far too long to get this far. Now they want to destroy the first time we have to get real results in the name of profit,and I can’t believe that the old chiefs would accept this either. The hatcheries can always be started later and will catch up if need be but the fish can not show anything with out a chance. This is the first and last best chance and the time is late and passing us by, it needs to be done.

  13. Andrew says:

    Excellent write-up! I agree 100 percent!

  14. Scott says:

    Hi Jim. I’m a bit behind on the blog, and really appreciated this post. I’ve shared it with a few others as many are aware of the Elwah restoration, but unaware of this regrettable decision. You have articulated the issue in a unique and powerful way. Please let us know how we can help: who to contact, where to send our checks.


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