Mouth of the Elwha
We spent the third weekend of September in Port Angeles, helping to celebrate the Elwha dams coming down. The 45-mile long Elwha River once produced all six species of Pacific salmonids, including record-setting Chinook salmon.
The return of the river to its natural course is great news for hundreds of species, but especially for the Endangered southern resident orcas. These pods (J, K and L) prefer Chinook salmon above all other prey.
The Elwha and Glines Canyon dams were built in the early 1900s, to provide hydroelectricity for a pulp mill in Port Angeles, and other other communities around the Olympic Peninsula.
The dams were installed without a fish passage, and blocked access to all but the first five miles of the river. Over 70 miles of upstream habitat was lost to returning runs. Within five years of the dams being built, anadromous species had disappeared from the Elwha's upper reaches.
Looking south from the rivermouth
Remnants of the native salmon runs remain, though their numbers are severely reduced. From an estimated pre-dam size of over 300,000, today’s runs total about 3,000 fish. The Seattle Times reports that native Chinook have been reduced to a record low of 500 fish.
The removal of the dams is the largest project of its kind in North America. It will take 2 to 3 years to bring the dams down, and longer to disperse the 24 million cubic feet of sediment has accumulated behind them. It will take decades to restore the habitat, and the salmon runs.
Will the salmon recover, and will they return in numbers big enough, and soon enough, to make a difference for the orcas? Only time will tell. But the weekend signaled a historic step in the right direction.
We take heart in the resilience and endurance of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, who have been working towards this moment for generations, and never gave up. Like the salmon who haven’t stopped trying to go home, though their way has been blocked for over 100 years.
Whale Trail Booth on the Pier
On Saturday, we had a booth at the Celebrate Elwha festival on the City Pier. About 1000 people attended the event, which featured art, music, food and a simulcast of the dam removal ceremony.
On Sunday, we participated in Explore Elwha, which featured hands-on activities at stations throughout the watershed. Our station was near the mouth of the Elwha, at a glorious spot on what turned out to be a sunny day.
Visitors helped us “feed the whales” - decorating salmon drawings, and posting them on boards for J, K and L pods.
Feeding the Whales
Salmon Wishes for the Whales
Fish Wish Detail
On the way home, Kathy and I stopped by the Elwha River Bridge, which has a pedestrian overpass, and provides easy access to the river.
After talking about them all weekend, we were thrilled to see schools of Chinook salmon pooling in the river, heading upstream. In the shadows of the shallows they were hard to pick out, until a movement - a sudden splash or the flash of a fin - gave them away. We were hushed and awed at their effort to clear each riffle; the epic journey coming to an end at our feet.
Salmon carcasses, spawned and spent, collected in a ghostly white pile in an eddy downstream. Along the bank, blood-stained rocks told of a recent bear feast. Salmon are a keystone species, feeding not just orcas in the ocean, but over 100 species of animals and plants throughout the forest.
We wondered how many creatures were watching from the woods, waiting for the humans to leave so they could start fishing again.
Sources for this post, and to learn more about the Elwha:
Thanks and congratulations to the Olympic National Park, NatureBridge and all the event organizers.
Thanks especially to Whale Trail volunteers Kathy, Ken, Evangeline and Jay, who made it possible for us to be there.
A version of this is cross-posted on my blog at www.thewhaletrail.org.