Monday, April 18, 2011

Washington's Sandy River

There's been quite a bit of buzz over the work being done on behalf of the Sandy River's wild fish.  Here are some links to learn about what's happening on the Sandy.

Oregon Guides Fight for wild fish on the Sandy
Possible Lawsuit over Sandy River hatcheries

After reading this and seeing the focus on display at the Native Fish Society auction a little over a week ago I wondered if Washington State had a Sandy River.  Of course, in the Pacific Northwest almost every river faces issues much like the Sandy River but I think one Washington State river stands out. 

My vote for Washington's Sandy is the Elwha River.  Pouring out of pristine wilderness, its salmon runs have been blocked by two dams, the lowest one just five miles from saltwater.  These two dams will be removed over the next three years at a cost of approximately 325 million  of taxpayer dollars.  The tribes, Olympic National Park, and WDFW have agreed to a five year fishing moratorium during and after the dam removal.  It is an exciting time to be living in the area and the excitement over the dams coming down is real.  There are celebrations scheduled throughout this summer.

There is a "but" to all of the celebrations of the Elwha and the fish restoration.  The problem is the current hatchery plans during the restoration, specifically the Elwha Tribe planting non-native, out of basin Chambers Creek winter steelhead during the fishing moratorium.  There is a heavy reliance on hatchery production in the Elwha restoration that is not based on the best available science.

Does anyone believe that planting non-native stocks of fish is a good way to restore fish populations after dam removals.  The Elwha currently has wild winter steelhead returning and these fish along with the large numbers of native resident rainbows above the dams can be the building blocks for real restoration of native fish.  The current plan will allow Chambers Creek steelhead to be the first steelhead colonizing habitat above the dam.  This is a travesty!

How can we be serious about restoring wild fish when we continue down the path that has led to the destruction of our wild fish stocks in the past?  The rivers of the Olympic Peninsula once had large early timed runs of winter steelhead.  Chambers Creek plants along with the associated harvest pressure has destroyed almost all of the early timed fish.  Planting Chambers Creek steelhead means we are giving up on restoring the true diversity of the Elwha River.

Sacrificing a large component of a wild fish run on the largest fish restoration project in our Nation's history is bad for the fish.  Science should be guiding the way on the Elwha restoration and unfortunately in the case of winter steelhead science is being ignored.


  1. Agreed that the Elwah plan is a travesty. Wild salmonids should be allowed to recover on their own, not just for the health of the population(s), but for the chance to document natural recovery.

    Interestingly, and maybe somewhat ironically, it appears that the Sandy River has hatchery programs to thank for today's naturally reproducing chinook and coho. ODFW & NOAA are likely to use hatchery stocks of chum to re-establish O. keta in the lower river. And it's unclear how much of today's wild steelhead population is related to hatchery fish. Like the Elwah, both the Sandy and Clackamas had dams in their lower reaches that blocked fish passage for over a decade, and the poor fish that were blocked at the dams were seined out of the pools each year for use as hatchery broodstock. By the time the dams came out, it was believed that wild fish had been extirpated.

    In these cases, there seems to have been a benefit to using hatchery stocks. And perhaps they are most effective when used in bursts, rather than with annual plantings. This nuance makes a confusing topic all the more mind boggling, especially for the average joe who doesn't care about wild fish.

    I'd appreciate your thoughts on this subject.

  2. I'll try to answer some of the points you bring up, although I'm not 100% on what is going on with the salmon stocks on the Sandy or Clackamas. In Washington State, everything I have seen shows that wild steelhead have remained genetically distinct from the Chambers Creek stock used throughout the State. This is the case on the Elwha even after decades of hatchery plants and a dam blocking access to almost the entire river.

    As for short bursts of hatchery production after stocks have been extirpated, I think this is an option. The problem is that very few hatchery programs are set up with an exit strategy, especially the modern broodstock debacle we see being used on our steelhead stocks. A case for a short term hatchery program is the Hood Canal summer chum program. The program planted summer chum for a short time after stocks became extinct. The hatchery plants are finished and there are now self-sustaining wild populations of summer chum.

    The biggest problem is that short term rescue programs such as the one I mentioned are used by hatchery proponents to support massive programs that serve only to create harvestable fish and have nothing to do with conservation, such as broodstock hatcheries on the Sol Duc.

  3. Rob,
    Do you have data to support the assertion that wild Coho and Chinook are descendants of hatchery fish on the Sandy. I find it highly unlikely. It's possible that due to high stray rates wild populations are at present VERY similar to hatchery fish. That wouldn't however allow us to infer that hatchery fish gave rise to the current wild populations. Instead it speaks to teh fact that WAY to many hatchery fish spawn in the wild on the Sandy. Hence the lawsuit.