Coho salmon are finally swimming in a part of the Elwha River that had been all but cut off by two hydroelectric dams.
The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, and volunteers from state and federal agencies, transferred 50 coho salmon recently from its new hatchery to a stretch of river between the Elwha and the Glines Canyon dams near the Highway 101 Bridge.
The dams, built without fish ladders in 1910, have blocked migrating salmon from getting past the lower five miles of the river.
“We plan to track their movements using radio tags but also expect them to start seeding the area,” Larry Ward, the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe hatchery manager said in a news release.
The tribe plans to release 600 fish into the river this fall.
All the fish will be tagged with spaghetti tags, so they can be identified if harvested. Nearly one-third of the fish also will be outfitted with blue plastic radio tags. The tags will help the tribe track the fish as they seek spawning grounds in nearby tributaries.
The offspring of these salmon are expected to head to the ocean in spring 2013. When dam deconstruction wraps up in 2014, they will be returning to the river as adults.
They will be the first salmon to come back after the dams are removed.
During dam removal, work in the river will be put on hold during fish windows, when fish return to the river to spawn.
Current deconstruction of the dams is finished for the year.
The dams are owned by the federal government; the Olympic National Park is spearheading the removal effort. The project to remove the structures and restore the Elwha River ecosystem, estimated at $350 million, is the largest dam removal project to date in the United States.
It’s been nearly 20 years since Congress passed the Elwha River Restoration Act, calling for removal of both dams to restore the Elwha watershed and which once was the home to all five runs of Pacific salmon and hosted kings known to push the 100 pound mark.
As of late October, 600 adult coho salmon found their way to the new hatchery, with more expected through December, Ward said.
The fish coming back to the new hatchery are a mix of hatchery and natural salmon. All the fish that return to the new hatchery will be moved to the river to spawn in the wild or will be spawned at the hatchery.
No fish have returned to the old hatchery, Ward said, most likely because the tribe isn’t pushing out water from the old facility to attract fish to return there. The new hatchery is pushing out water toward the river to attract fish to come to the facility.
(Photo courtesy of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. In the photo hatchery manager Larry Ward releases a coho into the Elwha River.)