The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, Olympic National Park, and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife announced that the Tribal Ceremonial and Subsistence fishery for coho salmon on the Elwha River will be open for a limited time during fall 2023. Additionally, the Tribe, ONP, and WDFW agreed to extend the closure of other recreational and commercial fisheries in the Elwha River for another year.
For more than 100 years, the Elwha River dams blocked salmon access to over 90% of the river, devastating the once abundant salmon population in this system. Since the start of dam removal in 2011, the Tribe, WDFW, and ONP voluntarily suspended all fish harvest on the Elwha River so that salmon populations could recolonize their former habitats and rebuild their populations.
In the nine years since the complete removal of the Elwha River dams, multiple salmon species have shown positive signs of recovery.
Coho salmon recovery has been a success story due to the Tribe’s hatchery and fish relocation efforts during and after the dam removal process. The Tribe will conduct a harvest with a limited amount of adult coho salmon at the Ceremonial & Subsistence Fishery on the lower 3 miles of the Elwha River in October 2023. The timing of this fishery is designed to minimize impacts to non-target salmonid species, particularly federally listed Chinook and steelhead.
The Elwha River system has been central to Elwha Klallam culture and lifeways since time immemorial. Up until the early 20th century, Elwha Tribal fishers relied on subsistence fishing in the Elwha River to provide for their families. This Ceremonial & Subsistence Fishery will provide an opportunity for Tribal fishers to finally access local fish from their namesake river for the first time in over a decade.
“I look forward to fishing the Elwha River. I have been on the river most of my life. It will provide food for my soul and family. It will keep the fishing culture alive not only for me, but for my 16-year-old son. So many youths and adults have given up gill net fishing as the economic value is not there. Many have turned to harvest of shellfish, which provides more value. I hope opening the river to fishing will revitalize our fishing culture and traditions,” said Lower Elwha Klallam Vice Chairman Russ Hepfer.
“We join the Tribe and project partners in celebrating the renewal of Pacific Salmonids to the Elwha River and Olympic National Park. The park is truly grateful for the long-term partnership, commitment, and sacrifices made by the Tribe throughout the Elwha River Ecosystem Restoration Project. After a decade-long fishing closure, it’s exciting to see a transition from dam removal to ecosystem benefits, and now a meaningful Ceremonial and Subsistence Fishery,” said Olympic National Park Superintendent Sula Jacobs. “The Elwha River Ecosystem Restoration project is truly a benchmark for cultural and ecological restoration, and a river of hope that grows wilder every day. We have made a significant conservation commitment to future generations of people and fish, and the park looks forward to reopening sport fishing to park visitors in the upper watershed within the next few years.”
“WDFW has been anticipating a time when the Elwha River would produce runs of salmon that could once again support treaty rights of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe,” said WDFW Regional Fish Program Manager James Losee. “Ceremonial & subsistence fisheries directed at coho this year is a signal that we are headed in the right direction in the recovery of the Elwha River.”
The Ceremonial & Subsistence Fishery for coho salmon will be strictly regulated and include a mix of hand held gear and river nets. Nets will be limited to ½ the span of the river. This fishery will be intensively monitored by Tribal fisheries biologists and enforcement officers for compliance with regulations and to ensure that impacts to non-target species are minimized. The Tribe and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will simultaneously evaluate the impacts of various fishing gear types on release survival of non-target species. The data that biologists collect from this fishery will be crucial in developing future in-river commercial and recreational fisheries for coho and other salmon species.
Elwha River fish recovery monitoring is a long-term, cooperative effort involving the Tribe, ONP, NOAA Fisheries, USFWS, U.S. Geological Survey, and WDFW. Each year, project partners evaluate spawner abundance, distribution, and juvenile production throughout the river system using a variety of tools including sonar, redd surveys, snorkel surveys, tangle net surveys, and smolt trapping.
The Tribe, WDFW, and ONP continue to evaluate Elwha River coho salmon population data and to refine long-term management objectives for their recovery. This includes Elwha River coho salmon escapement goals that will provide for future commercial and recreational harvest opportunities.
Recreational and commercial fishing will resume when there is broad distribution of spawning adults above the former dam sites, spawning rates allow for population growth and diversity, and a harvestable surplus of fish are returning to the Elwha River.
The federal government spent nearly $325 million for the removal of the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams on the Elwha, opening nearly seventy miles of pristine riverine habitat in Olympic National Park, much of which is designated a wilderness area.
Dam removal began on the Elwha River in mid-September 2011. Today, both the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams have been removed, the Lake Mills and Lake Aldwell reservoirs have drained, and the Elwha River flows freely from its headwaters in the Olympic Mountains to the Strait of Juan de Fuca for the first time in 100 years. Dam removal was complete in September 2014.
Mountain lakes in the Elwha basin within ONP and Lake Sutherland will remain open to sport fishing from the fourth Saturday in April through October 31.
–CBB, May 5, 2022, ELWHA RIVER FISHING CLOSURE EXTENDED; NEED MORE SALMON, STEELHEAD TO MOVE INTO HABITAT ABOVE REMOVED DAMS https://cbbulletin.com/elwha-river-fishing-closure-extended-need-more-salmon-steelhead-to-move-into-habitat-above-removed-dams/
— CBB, Jan. 29, 2021, ELWHA DAM REMOVAL STUDY: STEELHEAD BLOCKED BY DAMS RETAINED GENETIC DIVERSITY NEEDED TO RESUME OCEAN-GOING MIGRATION https://cbbulletin.com/elwha-dam-removal-study-steelhead-blocked-by-dams-retained-genetic-diversity-needed-to-resume-ocean-going-migration/
–CBB, April 28, 2017, APPEALS COURT UPHOLDS DECISION ALLOWING HATCHERY FISH IN ELWHA RIVER SALMON RECOVERY https://cbbulletin.com/appeals-court-upholds-decision-allowing-hatchery-fish-in-elwha-river-salmon-recovery/