Wednesday, November 9, 2011

White Salmon Dam Removal Highlights Weaknesses in Elwha Recovery Plan

Dam removal is proceeding at Glines Canyon and Elwha Dams

For fish and river lovers this has been a monumental fall. In late September, work began to remove two dams on the Elwha River in what will eventually be the largest river restoration project in our history. As many of you have undoubtedly read, removing these two dams will restore access to more than 90 miles of habitat in the Elwha, much of which is pristine and protected within the Olympic National Park. With access to that much pristine habitat, wild salmon and steelhead populations are poised to recover to levels not seen in the Elwha in a century. Unfortunately, state and federal agencies in cooperation with the Elwha Klallam Tribe have agreed on a fish recovery plan that will release close to 4 million hatchery salmon and steelhead into the river each year, threatening the recovery of wild fish in the basin.

The argument for the hatchery is that the habitat in the lower river will be so compromised by the sediment trapped behind the two dams that the hatchery program is necessary to keep the fish from going extinct. That may seem like a logical argument until you consider two facts. First, the magnitude of hatchery releases is completely out of scale with the supposed need. Under the current plan hatchery fish will continue to outnumber wild by an order of magnitude in the Elwha for the foreseeable future, reducing the productivity and fitness of the wild population. The ecological effects of the hatchery are also considerable and will serve to reduce the survival of wild juveniles in the river, and as they migrate to sea.

Second, in light of what we know about hatcheries and their impacts on wild populations what are the alternatives? Surely a number of alternatives were considered by the Elwha Recovery Team, but because the federal government never issued an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Fish Recovery Plan we have no idea what they considered. Nor did we have the opportunity to suggest that perhaps a massive production hatchery is incompatible with the goal of the dam removal, recovering healthy wild populations in the Elwha Basin.

Even without a formal list of alternatives for the Elwha Recovery, we don’t have to look far for examples of dam removal projects where managers have opted not to rely on hatchery intervention. This fall in preparation for the removal of Condit Dam on the White Salmon River, biologists with the USFWS captured nearly 700 adult Chinook and passed them above the dam. Like the Elwha, the removal of Condit unleashed massive amounts of trapped sediment which would have resulted in extremely high mortality for any juvenile Chinook incubating in the Lower River after the dam removal. Since the ultimate goal of the dam removal was to have Chinook colonize newly available habitats above condit dam, the biologists have solved two problems with one simple, inexpensive action. These fish will emerge next spring and migrate to sea and by the time they return Condit Dam will be gone. Given the existence of Chinook, coho and steelhead in the Lower Elwha the same type of recovery plan could have been implemented, instead the majority of returning adults will be taken into captivity, reducing the fitness of their progeny and delaying the natural process of colonization in the Elwha.

Both rivers are also home to healthy populations of rainbow trout, the resident life history of steelhead, and in both rivers these trout continue to produce substantial numbers of ocean going smolts each year. In both systems, a handful of these smolts survive to adulthood and upon returning to the river have been blocked from their spawning grounds, until now. Knowing this, managers on the White Salmon have had the wisdom to allow the fish to recover on their own, and they are optimistic that in a few generations steelhead will thrive again in the Upper White Salmon.

Contrast that with the $16 million the federal government spent on a hatchery on the Elwha. Despite assurances by NOAA’s regional administrator Will Stelle that hatchery operations are only temporary, no formal timetable for discontinuing hatchery releases has been set and no goals for wild recovery that would prompt reductions or outright elimination of hatchery releases are in place. Instead we have a blank check for permanent, massive hatchery supplementation in a river that in the absence of hatchery supplementation would likely be among the most productive in the region.

Given time the Elwha can again support robust fisheries for wild salmon, but by adopting a recovery plan which hinges on a production hatchery; managers are placing the cart before the horse. The Elwha is the project of a lifetime and given all the blood, sweat, tears and dollars that have gone into making it a reality, we need a fish recovery plan that works. One that will not only ensure harvest in the coming years but which will allow wild salmon to recover the diversity and abundance that once sustained the Elwha ecosystem. That dream can be a reality, but as long as the hatchery plan remains in place we won’t get there.

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