In September 2011 dam removal began on the Elwha River marking the beginning of the greatest river restoration project in history. Over the next two years, Glines Canyon and Elwha dams will be removed giving salmon access to over 90 miles of habitat, much of which is protected within the Olympic National Park. With salmon and steelhead populations hanging on in the lower river, and healthy rainbow trout (landlocked steelhead) populations in the upper river, there is ample reason to believe that wild salmon and steelhead will recover quickly in the Elwha.
Unfortunately, state and federal agencies in collaboration with the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe have agreed on a fish recovery plan without any formal environmental review or opportunities for public comment that will pump almost 4 million hatchery salmon and steelhead, including non-native Chambers Creek steelhead, into the Elwha for the foreseeable future. Hatchery production at this scale is fundamentally incompatible with the recovery of wild salmon and steelhead and as long as the Elwha is managed for hatchery production we will be squandering a once in a lifetime opportunity.
The impact of hatcheries on wild populations is well understood with numerous studies coming to the same conclusion; hatchery fish depress the productivity and diversity of wild stocks. In the Elwha where a century below the dams has whittled wild populations down to only a few hundred individuals, domesticating what remains of wild stocks and swamping the habitat with unfit wild fish is simply misguided. If we hope to recover wild salmon and steelhead to their full diversity and abundant potential we must step back and give the natural processes a chance to play out. The fish will recover but not if they are outnumbered 10 to 1 by hatchery fish on the spawning grounds.
That’s why the Wild Steelhead Coalition has teamed with the Wild Fish Conservancy, the FFF Steelhead Committee, and the Conservation Angler in bringing a lawsuit challenging the legality of the Elwha Recovery Plan. Through the lawsuit we hope to bring about some much needed oversight on the Elwha, compelling the government to meet their obligations under the National Environmental Policy Act as well as the Endangered Species Act by reviewing the details of the current plan. Review of the Elwha Recovery Plan under these statutes should address the role of hatcheries and provide recommendations based on the best available science on how to meet recovery goals in the Elwha and how to best implement adaptive management that minimizes the impact on hatchery programs on wild stocks in the Elwha going forward.