PORT ANGELES, Wash. — Standing on the banks of the Elwha River on a crisp November afternoon last week, Mel Elofson eased a slippery pink coho salmon into the cold, green water and watched it swim away.
“It’s a historic day,” he said. “We haven’t had salmon in these reaches for almost 100 years.”
Elofson, who works for the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe’s fisheries department, was part of a team that transported 55 coho salmon into the middle section of the of the Elwha River, re-introducing coho to the area for the first time since the 108-foot Elwha Dam was completed in 1913.
The dam was built without any form of fish passage, relegating coho and other species of salmon to the first five miles of the river. And in the decades since, the river’s salmon runs which once numbered in the hundreds of thousands, have dwindled to a few thousand salmon in recent years.
But with the Elwha Dam and the 210-foot Glines Canyon dam both being removed this fall, it’s time to begin re-introducing salmon to the upper watershed.
Fisheries biologists from the tribe and Olympic National Park are using hatchery-raised salmon in the Elwha fish restoration efforts because the numbers of wild salmon have dropped to critical levels.
“These coho are originally from the Elwha. They’ve been raising them in the tribal hatchery since 1978,” said Pat Crain, chief fisheries biologist for Olympic National Park.
The hatchery-raised coho are showing such high returns this year, that biologists plan to transport 600 coho above the dams in the coming weeks.
Before the coho are transported and released, they are weighed and tagged at the hatchery and DNA samples are taken. Twelve of the 55 that were moved last week were outfitted with radio tags. The process, essentially, is to anesthetize the fish and use a needle and thread to sew the device to it’s dorsal fin.
The radio tags will send out signals to a receiver which Raymond Moses, the tribal fisheries biologist in charge of the project, will use to track the coho as they move through the river.
“We want to try to be able to see where they go because they may go back down below the dam to try to spawn,” Moses said.
Because these coho were born and raised in the hatchery, they may want to follow an innate desire to return to their birthplace to spawn, Moses explained. But he’s hoping that these coho instead explore the prime spawning habitat above the dam.
“Hopefully it works,” Moses said. “I guess we’ll find out in the spring. If we find fry coho between the dams, this was a success.”
If these coho spawn in the wild, their offspring will spend about a year in the river before they head out to sea.
And by the time that generation of coho returns to spawn, it will find an Elwha River that is completely un-dammed.