How to Kill a Reborn River

How to Kill a Reborn River

On Washington's soon-to-be-freed Elwha, fisheries managers are snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

  • By: Ted Williams
  • Photography by: Greg Thomas
  • and Tom Okeefe
Elwha Dam

September 17, 2011 was a day of wild celebration in northwest Washington state for what is billed as the most ambitious salmonid recovery project ever undertaken on a single river. After nearly half a century of lobbying, negotiations, legal wrangling, legislation, environmental review, and a federal outlay of $325 million, the continent’s biggest dam removal project was underway.

Dismantled over the next three years will be the Elwha Dam—the 99-year-old, moss-clad relic that extinguished runs of steelhead, coastal cutthroats, sea-run bull trout and all five Pacific salmon species from 90 of the Elwha River’s 95 miles of spawning habitat. Coming down with it will be the equally useless and obsolete 85-year-old Glines Canyon Dam, eight miles upstream.

Among the celebrants was Olympic National Park fisheries biologist Brian Winter, arguably the most heroic figure in the long, painful process of freeing the Elwha. Other heroes included the Lower Elwha Klallam Indian tribe, whose members have led the charge against the dams since construction. In traditional garb they danced and sang and paraded around with salmon totems. “So many times, we weep. We pray. We weep some more . . . so many times we think, ‘What’s the use?” intoned tribal elder Ben Charles.

Chiming in about the magnificent victory were dignitaries from state and federal legislators to Washington Governor Chris Gregoire to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to National Park Service director Jon Jarvis to Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Larry Echo Hawk, who declared: “The Lower Elwha Klallam tribe signed a treaty in 1855 in which the U.S. government said the tribe’s way of life would be respected. Although the U.S. Constitution says treaties are the law of the land, the Lower Elwha saw only injustice. Today is a day of healing.”

BUT THE “INJUSTICE” IS NOW self-inflicted, and the “healing” will be sharply curtailed if state, federal and tribal managers proceed with their plan to pollute the freed river with ill-adapted fish, most from a new $16 million hatchery built for the tribe by American taxpayers. The Fish Recovery Plan, as it is called, was written and will be implemented by the tribe, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In addition to pink, chum and coho salmon the tribe will continue to raise and release non-native Chambers Creek winter steelhead—a top contender for the most inbred and frail of all hatchery stocks. When only five miles of anadromous habitat existed in the river the tribe could make something of a case for this kind of steelhead ranching. Now, to use the word of retired University of Washington fisheries professor Dr. James Karr, it’s “insane.”

Eighty-three percent (267 square miles) of the watershed is wild and pristine, and protected in perpetuity as part of Olympic National Park. The river system here teems with some of the world’s purest steelhead because the dams have quarantined them from contamination by hatchery genes. “Resident rainbows” in name only, they produce smolts that will revert to anadromy as soon as they have access to the sea.

If hatchery stock—which has been poured silage-like into all the top habitat in Washington state for the better part of a century—could facilitate salmonid recovery, Puget Sound streams would abound with steelhead and Chinook. Instead they’re in such desperate trouble they require protection under the Endangered Species Act. Chambers Creek winter steelhead—the state’s go-to monoculture stock since the 1960s—were domesticated from a now-extinct, early-run population near Tacoma, then bred to return even earlier. This way hatchery space could be used to full advantage—smolts could be produced in one year, and holiday anglers could catch returning adults before Christmas. Tribal netters, predators and anglers descended on the hatchery-bloated runs, virtually eliminating the early wild-fish component. Wild fish that weren’t killed directly were compromised by hybridization, competition, pathogens and parasites.

Trout and salmon reared in hatcheries are selected for domesticity. They learn to feed on the surface, where in the wild they’d be snatched by predators. They learn not to seek cover because none exists; they adapt to crowded conditions because they have no choice; their fins have been nipped and abraded into fleshy stubs, but in the hatchery environment they don’t need to swim efficiently. In short, they’ve been recast into everything wild fish are not. Using them to restore self-sustaining runs doesn’t work. Jungle fowl recovery would be equally successful were Frank Perdue to release his chickens in southeast Asia.

That’s not to say that hatcheries don’t have their place. They create fishing where none would otherwise exist. They’ve been instrumental in restoring redfish to the Gulf states. Without them Lake Superior would still be missing its famed and now naturally reproducing mackinaw trout. And they’ve worked spectacularly for holding and propagating the last survivors of vanishing races—greenback cutthroats, Gila trout, Apache trout, blueback trout, desert pupfish and pallid sturgeon, to mention just a few. But the main product of Northwest salmon and steelhead hatcheries, other than scandalously expensive meat, is a narcosis that makes the public believe all is well and it need not worry about keeping woods and rivers healthy. That’s hardly breaking news. Federal fisheries biologist John Cobb complained about “an almost idolatrous faith in the efficacy of artificial culture of fish for replenishing the ravages of man and animals,” noting that “nothing has done more harm than the prevalence of such an idea.” He said that in 1917.

“A colossal failure” is how Kurt Beardslee, director of the Wild Fish Conservancy, describes the saturation bombing of Northwest rivers with hatchery fish. “The [state, federal and tribal] hatchery bureaucracy continues to make the same mistakes over and over and over again, each time expecting a different result,” he says. “That’s one definition of insanity.”

Qci_0173.Bill McMillan, a field biologist recently retired from the Wild Fish Conservancy, has tracked smolt-to-adult returns for hatchery salmon and steelhead and then computed cost per harvested fish. On the North Fork of Washington’s Nooksack River, the Kendall Creek Hatchery spends $1,468 for each harvested Chambers Creek steelhead. The public gets a better deal on the Skagit, where the Marblemount Hatchery spends $1,032 per harvested Chambers Creek steelhead. McMillan calls hatchery salmonids in Northwest rivers a “toxin,” equating them with “headwater gold mines.” And he points out that there’s more working against wild fish than just hatchery-caused disease, competition, genetic degradation and increased harvest. We’ve also created a predator explosion by packing fresh and salt water with physically impaired, surface-oriented idiot fish.

The Elwha’s Fish Recovery Plan talks about “adaptive management” best defined as “plan, implement, check, adjust.” But McMillan offers this: “Adaptive management has been boilerplate language in every plan I’ve looked at in the last 15 years, and I don’t know of a single place it has occurred—that is, where a hatchery program has been taken out or even reduced.” Moreover, the “adaptive management” language in the plan is alarming. It says that if runs recover quickly, hatchery releases will be ramped down. But hatchery releases will ensure that wild runs don’t recover quickly. It’s like the old, equally discredited prescription for anemia—leeches.

Meanwhile there are all these wild fish roaming around, waiting to re-colonize the river: summer and winter steelhead, chums, cohos, Chinooks, pinks and sockeyes with no hatchery marks—the latter presumably kokanees that have dropped down from natural Lake Sutherland, made their way over the Elwha Dam and reverted to anadromy.

While some of the Elwha’s ocean-run salmonids have been warped by hatchery genes, well-adapted fish would quickly re-evolve if allowed to run the whole river on their own. Instead, managers contemplate placing them in the upper river along with their eggs and hatchery-reared progeny.

“When I read through the plan I couldn’t believe this was something billed as wild-salmon recovery,” says James Lichatowich, former assistant chief of fisheries for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and author of the acclaimed book Salmon Without Rivers. “They’re going to use the hatchery to ‘recover’ salmon, as if salmon don’t know how to recover themselves. Salmon have been doing it for 60 million years. This looks like a big hatchery program, acts like a big hatchery program and smells like a big hatchery program. And it just doesn’t make sense to release Chambers Creek steelhead. I don’t understand why the National Park Service is going to allow it. It seems to go against all the principles of their mission.”

“So why did Brian Winter sign off on the plan?” I asked, since Winter declined to discuss its obvious flaws with me.

“I talked to him a couple months ago,” Lichatowich replied. “Brian didn’t come right out and say it, but on some of the recovery planning groups I think he just got outvoted. I got the impression he wasn’t happy about it but that there wasn’t much he could do.”

The recovery plan is essentially an enabling document for self-destructive tribal behavior. Typically, re-colonization by anadromous salmonids of a freed river occurs within five to 25 years, depending on species and conditions. With all the wild fish and all the pristine habitat on the Elwha it’s likely to happen faster. But tribal leaders don’t want to wait for a wild in-river fishery even though members can continue to net salmon and steelhead in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, which collects the Elwha. Program director for tribal river restoration Robert Elofson told me this: “We do not harvest fish that don’t have proper escapement numbers. So when the river opens up it could be a few generations before we’re able to harvest any of those. We would like to allow our fishermen to start fishing again when the five-year moratorium [that will start in the spring of 2012] is over. The only stock we’re sure we can do that on is the Chambers Creek.”

This and similar statements by the tribe have appalled every professional fisheries manager who has heard them. On September 15 and 16, 2011 they packed the room at Peninsula College in Port Angeles during a symposium sponsored by the Elwha Research Consortium and Elwha Nearshore Consortium. One speaker, Dylan Tomine—an accomplished outdoor writer and one of Patagonia’s “fly-fishing ambassadors”—got a standing ovation. Was it because he was exceptionally eloquent? No, although he was. Was it because he revealed something the managers didn’t know? No; it was because he revealed something they did know but were afraid to utter.

What he said, in part, was this: “There are pure genetic strains of sockeye and steelhead above the dams, 100 miles of pristine habitat and plenty of opportunity for wild strays to repopulate it . . . . But because we’ve somehow lost our faith in Mother Nature and won’t believe what science has shown us . . . we are about to start releasing inbred, out-of-basin hatchery stocks into this newly restored habitat. Despite overwhelming evidence showing the presence of hatchery fish works as a powerful detriment to wild-salmon recovery, we insist, once again, on ‘helping’ the natural process.” Tomine told me he’d actually “softened” earlier drafts for fear of offending and thereby losing the attention of the fish-stupid state and federal bureaucrats who, discarding advice of their own scientists, had rubber-stamped the plan.

The unwritten law in fish-and-wildlife management is that when native Americans demand something they get it, even when it’s contrary to everyone’s best interest. One of the professional managers in attendance was fisheries consultant and former Montana State fisheries professor Dr. Ray White. “The other speakers knew about the dangers of stocking hatchery fish,” he reports. “But I tell you they tiptoed around that. It sounded almost as if they’d been forbidden to talk about the hatchery. When people in the audience asked about it they got politely brushed off. To allow salmon and steelhead to come back to an almost pristine watershed would be a beautiful experiment. And now the hatchery will screw that up. They made these blunders in Europe. They made them on our East Coast, and now they’re making them on the West Coast.”

Qci_0084_3.In addition to alerting their superiors about the dangers of polluting the Elwha with hatchery fish, state and federal scientists alerted the tribe. For example, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s regional fish manager, Ron Warren, wrote Elofson, urging that his people end Chambers Creek steelhead production and that they help the agencies “maximize what opportunity we can for wild fish to re-colonize and re-establish themselves.” And George Pess, Jim Myers and Jeff Hard of NMFS warned the tribe that “the continued release of non-native Chambers Creek winter run steelhead into the Elwha Basin is likely to reduce the viability of the naturally produced winter steelhead.” These and other scientists got their legs cut out from under them by agency brass trained not in biology but in political bargaining.

The excuse for the hatchery, as stated in the plan, is to hold and rear coho, pink salmon and winter steelhead (not Chambers Creek stock) for possible upriver releases (along with state-reared Chinook) in order to “jumpstart” recovery after the sediment storm from behind the dams supposedly kills returning fish. “It was assumed for planning purposes that most or all fish rearing naturally in the Elwha River below Glines Canyon Dam will die during dam removal,” submits NMFS. But there is no reason to make such an assumption; and even if there were, fish could be moved around the sediment and into 75 miles of prime habitat.

“There’s an ecological disconnect when people equate salmon runs with dead batteries,” says Lichatowich. “The Pacific Northwest is one of the most geologically active regions of North America—mountain building, volcanoes, landslides, glaciers, earthquakes. And there are frequent forest fires. These animals have adapted to all this sediment. They know how to recover themselves.”

When the Marmot Dam on Oregon’s Sandy River was removed five years ago, managers and anglers went on and on about how the sediment storm would devastate salmon and steelhead; and yet in under a week the fish were happily surging all the way up the freed river. An even more dramatic example is the sediment storm (in the form of super-heated volcanic ash) that extinguished life in the Toutle River when Mount St. Helens blew in 1980. Seven years later, after no stocking and no fishing, the Toutle hosted 2,588 wild steelhead spawners, far more than its presumed carrying capacity and far more than any other river in the Columbia basin. The state’s response was to stock hatchery steelhead, whereupon runs plummeted.

“The idea that we need to reseed the Elwha is ludicrous,” declares Will Atlas, Steelhead Committee chair for the Federation of Fly Fishers. “And the magnitude of the hatchery program is totally out of scale with that stated objective. Four million hatchery fish! That’s a production hatchery any way you slice it.”

IN ADDITION TO BEING THE leading force for dam removal, the tribe deserves major credit for agreeing to a five-year fishing moratorium—something the kokanee and trout anglers of Lake Sutherland whined about so loudly that the state rolled over and exempted them. But the moratorium may do more harm than good in that Chambers Creek steelhead, which the tribe will continue to dump into the river, will suffer no netting or angling mortality. What will get “jumpstarted” is competition and genetic pollution.

Nick Gayeski, aquatic ecologist for the Wild Fish Conservancy, makes this point: “Sockeye and rainbows in the upper river and summer steelhead in the lower river are going to be allowed to look after themselves. There are no plans to intervene for these fish. The agencies are quite comfortable in the belief that they’ll re-colonize on their own. And there’s no reason to believe that winter steelhead, Chinooks, cohos and pinks can’t do the same. The real breaking point for us is that there is absolutely no trigger that would be reached to actually turn the hatchery off. The feds can’t even get the tribes to the table to talk about it.”

On September 16, 2011, after getting stonewalled for eight months in an effort to engage the agencies and tribe in dialogue, the Wild Fish Conservancy, The Conservation Angler, the Federation of Fly Fishers Steelhead Committee and the Wild Steelhead Coalition served notice that they would sue NMFS, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service if “ongoing and/or imminent violations” are not corrected within 60 days. The complaint: flouting the Endangered Species Act by ignoring the best science needed to recover bull trout and Puget Sound Chinooks, steelhead and killer whales (killer whales eat salmonids).

I wish I could close on an optimistic note, but even if the litigation succeeds I can’t envision a bright future for Elwha fish. Hatcheries don’t just get converted to warehouses or bowling allies—especially when they’re new, cost $16 million and have been built in Washington, where there are now about 100. The hatchery bureaucracy—the only group that profits from them—has become a formidable political force. “If you cross a sacred cow with a military base in our state, you get a fish hatchery,” says Bernard Shanks, the gutsy former director of the Washington Fish and Wildlife Department who in 1998 was hounded out of office for merely suggesting that hatchery production be deemphasized.

At this point it appears that the Elwha River will wind up being nothing more than a hatchery-management zone—a mockery of the National Park Service’s pledged mission of “allowing natural processes to proceed unimpeded” and a tragic fizzle to what would otherwise have been the biggest salmonid recovery project the world had ever seen.

Ted Williams has written about conservation issues for this magazine for almost three decades.