Thursday, September 15, 2011

NOAA Administrator Weighs in on the Elwha

Will Stelle, the regional administrator for NOAA weighed in on the Elwha situation with an editorial of his own yesterday in the Seattle Times, in which he defends hatchery programs on the Elwha as a necessary part of the recovery. While Stelle states that there will be not be "hatcheries forever" he neglects to mention that there will be an ongoing release of non-native Chambers Creek steelhead during the recovery and the fishing moratorium. That simply cannot be defended biologically. While hatcheries will apparently be phased out as the population recovers, the reality is the recovery plan is entirely lacking in specific quantifiable recovery goals to guide when/how hatchery operations will be decommissioned. The editorial does not add any new detail stating ambiguously,"If the productivity of a restored Elwha is as strong as we expect, there likely will be little need for continued hatchery programs following restoration." This ignores the basic reality that until the hatchery is no longer releasing 4 million fish annually wild populations in the Elwha will be nowhere near their productive potential and in the rush to harvest the abundant hatchery fish we will be repeating the mistakes of the past, depressing the productivity of the habitat we fought so hard to restore.

From the Seattle Times:

Restoration of the Elwha's wild runs will need a careful jump-start

The removal of the two Elwha River dams begins this weekend. Guest columnist Will Stelle argues that restoring the river's salmon runs will take active intervention by releasing fish to jump-start the rebuilding. Hatcheries will be a tool of the process, if only temporarily.

REMOVAL of the two dormant Elwha River dams on the Olympic Peninsula will unleash a powerful, free-flowing river and once again open the entire watershed to the salmon runs that have been knocking at the base of the dams for a century now. Over the next decade, the transformation of the Elwha River we will witness is difficult to overstate.

That we are at this point, where the first blocks of concrete are to be removed this weekend, is a tribute to the vision and tenacity of the local community, the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks and the other federal and state leaders who have made this their mission.

The restoration of the Elwha has its complexities, including how to rebuild its legendary salmon and steelhead runs. The spectrum of opinion runs from a passive "hands-off" strategy to one of active intervention by releasing fish to jump-start the rebuilding effort. After a decade of work, endless public process and three independent science reviews, the agencies and tribes devised a fish-restoration plan built on an active reseeding strategy that is well-grounded conceptually and open to further refinement as we proceed. Here is why.

The dams' harm to fish will last longer than the structures themselves. Upon removal, mountains of sediment behind the dams will be swept downstream and reshape the lower end of the river and the shoreline/estuarine habitats at its mouth. While efforts have been made to create safe fish refuge and top scientists believe the floodplain may attenuate some of the impacts, entire populations of the remaining wild salmon and steelhead could disappear in this tumultuous period of transformation. Not our desired outcome.

In order to provide a safe harbor for these fish populations through the next few years, the restoration plan calls for hatcheries to protect the remnants of these wild runs in clear, clean water. The use of hatcheries to restore the Elwha's wild runs does seem odd, to be sure, but the risk hatcheries pose are dwarfed by the very real, near-term concern that without them we could lose the Elwha's wild fish for generations.

Some suggest that the populations would survive the onslaught of sediment, that hatcheries are unnecessary and harmful, and that the Elwha would be successfully recolonized without intervention. Perhaps, if we're lucky and patient. But science strongly suggests that any natural recolonization would take decades because the Elwha is relatively isolated from other fish-bearing streams that might provide "stray" fish to the Elwha for repopulation.

Instead, the restoration plan calls for increasing the natural production of fish as quickly as the river allows and phasing out hatchery fish as the wild populations gain strength. Skeptics question the commitment to this trajectory, surmising it masks a "hatcheries forever" approach. Not so.

Federal, state and tribal fisheries managers and other interested parties must spell out this transition strategy with measurable, verifiable metrics under the Endangered Species Act that will be subject to scientific and public review. If the productivity of a restored Elwha is as strong as we expect, there likely will be little need for continued hatchery programs following restoration.

What's the rush? Amid the concerns and consequences of dam removal, we must not lose sight of the severe effects to the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe in the near-term and its treaty-protected fishing right. NOAA Fisheries strongly supports the tribe's treaty right and knows that the right means fishing to the tribe, not just the mere existence of fish.

NOAA Fisheries shares in the tribe's pride and excitement about the restoration plan and looks forward to working with them and others on an acceptable hatchery transition that allows the tribe to be fishing as soon as possible on strong, abundant, wild Elwha River salmon and steelhead populations.

Join the effort, hold our feet to the fire and commit to success in rebuilding the wild runs of the Elwha.

Will Stelle is Northwest administrator of NOAA Fisheries Service in Seattle.

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