Salmon heading to spawn past Elwha Dam site

OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK — For the second year in a row, salmon are swimming in streams above the site of the former Elwha Dam.

Biologists have counted at least 500 adult chinook in the river this summer, as well as a few pink salmon and coho, Olympic National Park spokeswoman Rainey McKenna said. The official count will be released in November, but biologists said the run looks nearly identical to that of 2012.

“The run is every bit as strong as last year,” McKenna said.

The fall run of chinook is just past its peak, and numbers are continuing to increase daily, she said last week.

Last summer’s return of salmon to the Elwha River above the former dam’s site were the first in 100 years, The Peninsula Daily News reported Sunday.

The 108-foot-tall Elwha Dam came down in 2012. Earlier this year, removal of the last of two dams on the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula were put on temporary hold while officials fix problems at new water-treatment facilities built as part of the $325 million river restoration project.

In April, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, operating a separate fish hatchery along the Elwha River, attributed the deaths of year-old chinook salmon, which were found along the Elwha banks, to heavy sedimentation in the river.

But now, because of a hold put on dam removal while filtration issues are addressed at the federally funded Elwha Water Treatment Plant and surface water intake — and because of low summer rainfall and runoff levels — the amount of sediment in the river water has returned to normal levels, within healthy ranges for salmon, McKenna said.

Silt is no problem for the fish, she said.

The best place to see the chinook as they move upstream is from the Altair Bridge on Olympic Hot Springs Road near the entrance to Altair Campground, Rainey said.

The big fish sometimes jump out of the water or roll across the surface as they swim upstream seeking a suitable place for a redd, or nest, to lay eggs in before dying.

“There are park staff looking for redds in tributaries,” McKenna said.

In 2012, biologists counted about 2,200 chinook as they passed counting locations on their way to spawning beds, she said.

“This year, the salmon run is about the same, and the season is about halfway done,” she said.

Estimates for the ratio of hatchery-reared salmon compared with wild-hatched salmon were not available.

Pink salmon, also known as humpback, are the smallest of the salmon species. While chinook can grow to 40 to 50 pounds or larger, pinks can grow up to 12 pounds, according to the Fish and Wildlife website.

When Elwha Dam became operational in 1913, more than 70 miles of pristine Elwha River fish habitat was blocked. That dam, and a second dam built eight miles upstream — Glines Canyon Dam — were built without fish ladders.

Four native species of Pacific salmon — chinook, pink, coho and chum — and steelhead, a seagoing rainbow trout, were confined to the lower 5 miles of the Elwha and tributaries below Elwha Dam, just west of Port Angeles and outside the national park.

The pre-dam run of 400,000 chinook salmon in the Elwha was reduced to about 4,000, according Fish and Wildlife estimates.

By summer 2014, after the $325 million federal project to remove the dams is finished, the glacier-fed Elwha River is expected to flow freely as it courses from the Olympic Mountains to the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Kokanee, a small landlocked freshwater variation of sockeye salmon, which are in Lake Sutherland and were in the former Lake Aldwell behind Elwha Dam, are expected to recolonize the river through Indian Creek, which connects Lake Sutherland to the Elwha River.

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