Elwha River salmon, steelhead better off without hatcheries

With the dams being removed, a massive hatchery program threatens to impede effective use of the millions spent to open up the river and help salmon and steelhead runs recover.

Crosscut archive image.

The Elwha Dam (2006)

With the dams being removed, a massive hatchery program threatens to impede effective use of the millions spent to open up the river and help salmon and steelhead runs recover.

This summer, the longawaited dam removal on the Elwha River finally gets underway, marking the culmination of a two-decade effort toward restoring salmon to one of Washington’s most pristine rivers. The Elwha, in many ways, is a chance to rewrite history, undoing a century of destruction wrought by two dams that block migrating salmon from 90 miles of their historic habitat. By all accounts, removing the dams from the Elwha watershed is an extraordinary opportunity, one that will bring about the rebirth of a river, which was once home to some of the largest Chinook ever documented and where a 65-pound salmon was more the norm than a rarity. Throughout their evolutionary history, wild salmon and steelhead have recovered from a range of catastrophic disturbances.

Despite the capacity of these fish to recover naturally, state, federal, and tribal fisheries managers are poised to squander the opportunity. They’ve opted to build a $16 million hatchery that will flood the river with more than 4 million juvenile salmon and steelhead each year, including more Chinook and steelhead than are released on the entire northern coast of Oregon. This is despite 20 years of research demonstrating conclusively that hatchery fish are a major contributor to the decline of wild salmon in our region.

Domestication alters salmon so dramatically that a recent study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) revealed that even when hatchery fish are only one generation removed from the wild, wild fish produce approximately twice as many offspring as their hatchery counterparts. The current plan on the Elwha will domesticate a majority of the remaining wild salmon in the basin, reducing their productivity, and threatening their ability to build locally adapted, abundant wild populations.

Despite all the public interest, decisions on the Elwha recovery plan have been made largely without public input, driven instead by the millions of dollars set aside for a misguided and counterproductive hatchery. Meanwhile, research and monitoring critical in tracking the progress of the recovery remains woefully underfunded. The recovery plan claims that hatchery releases will be phased out as wild fish recover in the watershed, yet to date no benchmarks for wild recovery have been set, giving hatchery managers a blank check to continue harmful hatchery programs in perpetuity.

For nearly 60 years, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) has followed the “more is better” hatchery paradigm, releasing hundreds of millions of fish annually in almost every flowing piece of water in the state. Last year the state spent $52 million on hatcheries alone. What have we gotten for our investment? Thirteen ESA listed stocks in our state alone, coho extinct in the Upper Columbia and Snake Rivers, and most populations of salmon and steelhead hovering between 1 and 10 percent of their historic abundance.

To be fair, a litany of factors, including dams, overharvesting and habitat degradation, share the blame, but if hatcheries were at all effective in sustaining wild salmon, the fish would be thriving. In fact, throughout the state WDFW is trying to reduce the number of hatchery fish spawning in the wild as a means of recovering fragile wild stocks. So why, on the pristine Elwha River; where we’re about to spend millions of dollars to remove two aging dams in order to recover wild salmon, would we ever consider a recovery plan almost entirely contingent on hatchery releases?

Managers are convinced that as reservoir levels drop, fish in the lower Elwha will be subject to catastrophically high sediment loads. During the fall when the first heavy rains fill the river with a summer’s worth of eroded material, there is concern that there could be potentially lethal levels of suspended sediment passing through the lower river. Consequently, some believe that without major hatchery intervention there will be catastrophe, and they’ve pushed a plan that takes a significant portion of returning wild fish into captivity to raise their offspring in a hatchery. Yet an overwhelming body of science suggests hatchery fish will produce fewer offspring, undermine the genetic integrity of wild populations, compete for resources, attract predators, and spread disease to their wild counterparts.

Equally concerning is a plan by the Elwha Klallam Tribe to continue releasing non-native Chambers Creek winter steelhead into the Elwha despite written requests from the every co-managing agency asking that they discontinue the program. Originally native to the south Puget Sound, Chambers Creek steelhead have been released for decades throughout the state to supplement fisheries. These fish are so far removed from their original, wild ancestry that when spawning in the wild they produce close to zero offspring (and, in fact, the original wild Chambers Creek steelhead population is now extinct). On top of this, a five-year fishing moratorium will be in place during the dam removal period, so none of these fish will be caught in tribal or sport fisheries, yet they will return to the Elwha, possibly spawning with one of the few hundred wild steelhead that remain. That would effectively nullify the reproductive investment of the wild fish, which are the backbone of the river’s recovery.

With the all newly available habitat above the lakes, simply transporting wild fish around the dam removal locations would be a simple and cost-effective approach to start the recovery processes, while simultaneously ensuring that fish are not subject to dangerously high sediment loads in the lower river. Such “trap and haul” operations are commonplace throughout the state, and given the opportunity, the fish will be successful. Moreover, the history of the Toutle River in the years immediately following the explosion of Mount St. Helens shows the wild salmon and steelhead can deal with such short-term catastrophic disturbances of their native rivers.

Salmon are uniquely capable of rapid population growth during periods of low abundance, because lower competition between rearing juveniles leads to excellent survival. Swamping the upper Elwha with thousands of hatchery fish is not only expensive, it’s counterproductive.

On the Cedar River near Seattle, a far more heavily impacted watershed, fish passage was constructed at Landsburg Dam in 2003. Enlightened managers opted not to release hatchery fish into the upper river and simply allowed fish from the lower river to stray into the newly opened habitat. In the first year, 150 coho found their way into the upper Cedar. Three generations later, in 2009, almost 800 fish passed the ladder and the population continues to grow.

Salmon are uniquely capable of such rapid population growth during periods of low abundance, because lower competition between rearing juveniles leads to excellent survival. Swamping the upper Elwha with thousands of hatchery fish is not only expensive, it’s counterproductive, conflicting directly with the stated goal of recovering healthy wild populations.

All eight of the salmonid species historically found in the Elwha remain; from kokanee and rainbow trout (the landlocked forms of sockeye and steelhead respectively) to winter steelhead, Chinook, coho, chum, and pink salmon in the lower river. If allowed to migrate freely through their natal watershed again, they will thrive, but only if unimpeded by industrial scale hatchery intervention. Wild fish have been the backbone of our Northwest ecosystem for 10,000 years. Only in the last century have population growth, resource extraction and failed hatchery intervention driven populations to their current depressed levels.

The Elwha has a chance to rewrite the manual for salmon management, leading us into a future less dependent on an expensive and failing hatchery system that squanders tax dollars and undermines wild fish recovery. With a majority of the watershed protected within the Olympic National Park, the habitat remains pristine throughout most of its length, giving the river the capacity to one day support abundant runs of wild salmon once more. Dam removal on the Elwha means that we’re investing in an integral part of our region’s tremendous natural wealth, wild salmon.

The Elwha is one of our very few opportunities to be given a second chance. We owe it to the fish, the many species that depend on them, and ourselves to see what they can do.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors