The people of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe of Washington State have lived in the Lower Elwha River Valley and its neighboring bluffs on the Olympic Peninsula since time immemorial.
The community is based around the Elwha River, which provides water and sustenance in the form of salmon fishing. More than a century ago, two dams were placed on the Elwha, blocking almost 90 miles of the river and its tributaries, reported The Seattle Times.
The dams were removed in August of 2014, but the tribe had to wait for a run of salmon that was healthy enough to be fished. Now, for the first time in more than a hundred years, members of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe are fishing for coho salmon on the free-flowing river.
“It’s been a long time coming. The laughs, the joy we all feel in our hearts, is just tremendous, it’s historic,” said Russell Hepfer, vice chairman of the tribe, to a crowd gathered before resuming the fishery earlier this week, as The Seattle Times reported.
Since 1911, more than 90 percent of the flow of the river had been blocked by the two dams. Removing them was the biggest dam removal in history.
There is still a broad moratorium on fishing the Elwha River, but the tribe can fish for subsistence and tribal use due to an agreement with the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife and Olympic National Park.
The tribe is able to take 400 of the 7,000 coho run for now.
“It means everything to have that food security to know that I can catch a fish to feed my family,” said Vanessa Castle, the tribe’s natural resources technician, as reported by The Seattle Times. “I know my ancestors were standing with us.”
Coho salmon are most abundant along the coast of southeast Alaska down to Central California. They have also been introduced into the Great Lakes. The fish have beautiful shimmering greenish or blue backs and are commonly called silver salmon for their silver sides, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Coho begin their lives in freshwater streams and rivers, spending a year there before migrating to the ocean. Their migrations can be more than 1,000 miles. During the time coho salmon live in the ocean to feed, they develop small black spots on their tail and back. After about one-and-a-half years in the ocean, the salmon return to the river or stream where they were born, usually in the fall or early winter, to spawn.
So that everyone from the tribe who wants to can fish for the salmon, fishing poles are being used for now, with net fishing later in the month, according to The Seattle Times.
Last year, approximately 6,821 coho returned to the Elwha River, about 36 percent of which had spawned on their own rather than being born in the hatchery, the tribe said. The numbers were 10 percent higher than the year before, and it was the largest return of coho to the river in four years.
Now, relocation of the fish from the lower river hatchery is no longer needed to boost the fishery in the main part of the river and its tributaries.
“The fish are doing it on their own,” said Mike McHenry, the tribe’s fish habitat manager, The Seattle Times reported. McHenry has been working on the recovery of the Elwha River for 32 years.
Removing the dams allowed the flow of sediment, wood and gravel to begin again, which the river needs to create side channels and log jams that create the variety of environments fish need to thrive.
“It will be a great time to introduce our children to the river, and hopefully be able to revive some of those basic ceremonies around it,” said tribal member Wendy Sampson.
Restoration of the Elwha River is in its early stages, but has inspired dam removals in other places, like on North California’s Klamath River, which will supersede the Elwha to become the largest dam removal in history.
“I think the Elwha gives people hope for what might be possible,” said Matt Beirne, the tribe’s natural resources director, as reported by The Seattle Times.
Tribal member Mel Elofson, who is the tribe’s assistant habitat manager, had heard about the possibility of dam removal from his elders.
“Now I’m getting to witness it for my elders who were unable to see it,” Elofson said.