Jumping the gun on the Elwha?

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The release of Chinook smolts from the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe Fish Hatchery was a disaster. Seabury Blair Jr. at the Kitsap Sun observes:

Two days after I hiked the sandy, rocky desolation that used to be Lake Mills, as many as 200,000 chinook salmon were killed in what has to be one of the biggest blunders in the history of the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The year-old salmon were released from the new $16 million Elwha Hatchery run by the state and Lower Elwha Klallam tribe on April 5. Most — if not all — were killed when they tried to swim downstream through the thick gray goop that is the lower Elwha River, created by the removal of two dams built illegally in 1910.

Hatchery officials said water tests taken the night before showed an acceptable level of turbidity, but that the level of dissolved sediment increased overnight before the release. Blair reports the Elwha becomes predictably sediment-laden where Lake Mills used to lie, downstream of the hatchery, saying “I don’t need a degree in biology to tell you that no fish could live in that water.”

Meanwhile, the Peninsula Daily News reports conservation groups are fighting the planned releases on wild salmonid welfare grounds:

Four conservation groups have ramped up their efforts to prevent the releases next spring of hatchery-bred steelhead and coho salmon smolts during the ongoing $325 million Elwha River salmon restoration project.

The groups filed requests last week in federal District Court in Tacoma for a preliminary injunction and a partial summary judgment to prevent the releases, saying the plans should be reviewed for compliance with the federal Endangered Species Act, or ESA, and that they would harm species listed as threatened under the act.

In their request for an injunction, the groups want to halt a planned April release of about 175,000 steelhead smolts and about 425,000 hatchery coho salmon smolts from the Lower Elwha Klallam hatchery into the Elwha River, much of which is in Olympic National Park.

Earthfix (from KCTS9 Public Television)

http://earthfix.kcts9.org/flora-and-fauna/article/in-largest-dam-removal-in-us-history-which-fish-ge/

As eager as all are to see robust fish populations return to the Elwha, I’m still mystified at the state/tribal decision to release the doomed  smolts. It was understood the native salmonid population of the Elwha would be suppressed for a time owing to increased turbidity in the wake of the removal of the Elwha and Glines Canyon Dams. Why not give these native populations a chance to repopulate the pristine upper reaches of the Elwha first; let nature retake its course: the one the river finally cleanly cuts for it through layer after layer of man-accreted crud? The economic blah blah of industrial-scale salmon runs might sound like a quick marketing victory for WADFW and put stars in the eyes of tribal leaders seeking tangible success stories, but doesn’t it give lie to all the rationales around ‘restoring the natural state of the river’ if the first thing we do –the thing we couldn’t wait to do, at the cost of 200,000 chinook smolts– is build yet another barrier to that natural state to replace the two we just knocked down?

Until the bureaucrats, rangers, fisheries managers, and tribal leaders involved in this unsatisfying state of affairs are willing to drink a cupful of river water dipped every 100 yards between the hatchery and the Strait, I say let the river alone.

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