Last year, we watched as a couple of dams in the Pacific Northwest were being dismantled and the real work continues today and this is so important that these projects on the White Salmon (Condit Dam) and the Elwha rivers (Elwha Dam and Glines Canyon Dam) be great success stories in the restoration of wild salmon stocks. These projects have to be successful in order for there to ever be any forward movement and eventually any breaching of the four killer dams on the lower Snake River.
Recently, I asked some targeted questions of the fisheries biologists working on the Elwha River salmon restoration project in light of the newly removed dams.
My question related to the Elwha summer/fall Chinook Hatchery and Genetic Management Plan-otherwise known as the Elwha River HGMP (which I will upload below this blog post for you to read). My questions was...
"Is there any set of standards to evaluate whether or not the ongoing hatchery operation is positively/negatively affecting the natural/wild spawning populations in the recolonization and local adaptation steps of this? And if not, how would you know if the hatchery operation isn't holding the population back from self-sustainability in light of various studies showing hatchery fish weakening gene pools and competing with natural/wild fish for food thereby possibly keeping you from your goal?
Also, what happens to the hatchery if you reach a self-sustaining population, is it reclaimed or retooled for other work?"
Jon Anderson, Hatchery Reform Coordinator for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife gave me this answer, and to be honest, I thought the answer was robust and to the point of my question...
"Dear Mr. Wells,
Thank you for your several questions relative to the Elwha Chinook Hatchery & Genetic Management Plan. I will attempt to answer them.
Historically, the Elwha’s salmon habitat included about 70 miles of the river and its tributaries.
The Elwha River was dammed in 1914 at River Mile 4.9. The dam had a number of negative effects on the salmon run besides confining migrating fish to the lower river, including increasing the summer water temperatures, resulting in increased disease, parasites and related fish mortalities, and it decreased the transport of sediment and spawning gravels.
Since then, any naturally-spawning chinook have been restricted to this section of the lower river. An early salmon hatchery was constructed, but abandoned as a failure after 7 years.
As stated in Section 1.13 of the HGMP, consistent annual releases of chinook did not occur until 1953. The Elwha Channel, built in 1974, was originally designed to be a spawning channel, but because of difficulties in attracting adults onto the site, it was modified for use as rearing ponds.
The Elwha Channel Hatchery program has been sustained for decades only through the collection of broodstock from the adult salmon population returning to the Elwha River. The Puget Sound Technical Recovery Team identified Chinook salmon spawning in the Elwha River as geographically distinct from other populations in east Puget Sound and Hood Canal and genetically distinct from all other Puget Sound Chinook populations.
The hatchery- and natural-origin components of the Elwha population are genetically indistinguishable and are thought to represent the remnant, genetically-unique and independent Elwha Chinook population. Recent natural-origin Chinook productivity data suggests that Elwha Chinook would be extinct except for supportive breeding provided through annual operation of the Elwha Channel hatchery program over the past 30-40 years.
The Elwha River Fish Restoration Plan was published by NOAA Fisheries in 2008, and established several “phases” of salmon restoration. The Hatchery Scientific Review Group (HSRG) reviewed the Elwha River Fish Restoration Plan and earlier drafts of Hatchery and Genetic Management Plans to assess the benefits and risks of the proposed programs for re-establishing self-sustaining populations of five species of anadromous fish in the Elwha River Basin. Detailed discussion is provided in their report. The current Elwha Chinook HGMP available for public review has adopted the recommendations of the HSRG, as appropriate.
During the “Preservation phase” of the Elwha River salmon recovery plan, the goal of the hatchery program is to preserve the existing genetic and life history diversity of native salmonid populations until fish passage is restored and water turbidity is determined to be non-lethal to fish in the river. The Elwha Dam was removed this past March. The expectation is that the Glines Canyon Dam, at River Mile 13.5, will be removed by the end of 2014, and that it may take at least 5 years for the enormous volume of accumulated sediments to migrate downstream or stabilize. We are currently in this phase.
Once the dams are removed, passage is restored, and fish have access to refugia from potentially-lethal suspended sediment concentrations, or suspended sediment concentrations no longer reach lethal levels expected to negatively impact fish populations, we will be in the “Re-Colonization phase”. The goal of the hatchery during the Re-colonization Phase is to ensure that salmonids are continually accessing habitats above the old dam sites with some fish spawning successfully and producing smolts. The chinook hatchery will maintain its integrated program, including natural- and hatchery-origin adult broodstock.
It is expected that the Re-Colonization Phase will transition to the next (Local Adaptation) phase when another set of decision rules and triggers provide evidence that chinook distribution is increasing and abundance of naturally-produced fish is above a minimum population threshold level. In years of lower than minimum numbers of Natural-origin recruits returning, additional hatchery-origin recruits would be placed in the watershed to spawn.
As passage is restored, and adult chinook re-colonize the upper watershed, salmon restoration will transition to the “Local Adaptation Phase”, and the hatchery program will accordingly be ramped-back. In the Preservation Phase and Recolonization Phase, the chinook population will rely on the current program of integrated hatchery‐origin spawners. In the Local Adaptation Phase, hatchery influences are withdrawn with the hatchery serving as a safety net. As the Naturally produced chinook establish themselves, the hatchery program will be completely eliminated in the Full Restoration Phase.
The Elwha Chinook HGMP available for public review will address public comments, and the final document will be submitted to NOAA Fisheries for approval under Section 4(d) of the Endangered Species Act. We expect that the current HGMP will be approved by NOAA for only 5-to-10 years. As such, this HGMP does not address actions in the Local Adaptation Phase or the Full Restoration Phase. A HGMP will be developed for renewal at the expiration of the NOAA authorization period, using data that the co-managers have gathered to adaptively address progress toward restoration of the Elwha River natural chinook population."
This got me thinking, wild salmon and steelhead advocates of the Snake River Basin, what's our plan for salmon recovery if we ever get the conversation rolling on lower Snake River dam removal? What, if any, role will the multitude of hatcheries play in any post-dam era? In answering my question, keep in mind the Hood River Study that shows hatchery supplementation pollutes the wild steelhead gene pool within the first generation with some drastic reductions in spawning production rates. How do we, as Snake River wild salmon and steelhead advocates, have all of our ducks in a row should we ever get passed the bullies that are various members of Congress, the Bonneville Power Administration, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agriculture lobby, the oil lobby, the barge lobby, the scattered recreation lobby, et. al. and get into serious discussions about the real possibility of removing four dams on the lower Snake River?
I send that question out there into the ether for you to ponder and respond. Of course, I will share ideas for this along the way. Yes, if we removed these dams, I do believe the wild fish will prosper without much help from us, once we do some mitigation work for the dam removal, but we need something solid, carved in stone that has a "can do" attitude about it that smacks down the argument against change. I don't want our side to lie to the people like the dam proponents always do with each and every dam project. So, your work is cut out for you. Let's get the ball rolling, somebody form a committee, send me the minutes and I'll let you know if it will fly.