Give a rainbow trout a direct line to the ocean and you have a potential steelhead. Throw a dam in its path and watch anadromy hit a wall. Salmonids in Washington State’s Elwha River, on the northeastern edge of the rain-soaked Olympic Peninsula, found their long-lost gateway to the sea reappear when the largest dam-removal in U.S. history commenced eight years ago. By 2015, both the lower Elwha and upper Glines Canyon dams were no more. But what of the fish that once were—the ghosts of hundred-pound chinook and double-digit steelhead that formerly laid claim to the river’s glacial-green, boulder-studded waters?
This fall, fish biologist John McMillan and filmmaker Shane Anderson spent four illuminating days documenting the answer. The duo joined scientists and stakeholders from Olympic National Park, TU, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, NOAA, the Elwha Tribe, and the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. The findings from their subsurface recon mission detail a promising new beginning for the concrete-free Elwha.
Riverscape work conducted by the teams—basically a snorkel survey that uses multiple divers in a short period of time to count fish across the entire length of the river—resulted in the identification of more than 300 adult summer-run steelhead.
“It’s really a huge deal,” says McMillan, who’s been living next to and working on the river since 2009.
“The summer-runs were basically extinct before dam removal. Last year we counted 250. This year about 350. So the population could be 600, or more.”
It’s also evident that the population is growing quickly. “As it stands,” McMillan continues, “the Elwha likely supports more wild adult summer runs than all the other OP streams combined.”
Most of the adult fish found were females. “Even more impressive were the numbers of juvenile steelhead, plus the numbers of bull trout,” Anderson says. “These are densities I haven’t seen anywhere—especially in the OP. We hoped to see more fish than last year. But we had no idea we’d see this many.”
Elwha Dam was built to power local sawmills and, eventually, to supply electricity to a Crown Zellerbach pulp and paper company. The dam was built illegally, without state law-required fish passage. Stripped of their ability to migrate, once abundant runs of steelhead and salmon mostly vanished.
Crown Zellerbach attempted to relicense Elwha Dam in the ’70s, but faced vigilant fish defenders, including Michigan Congressman John Dingell, Chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee and an avid angler. In 1996, a Record of Decision (ROD) in favor of dam removal was inked, followed by years of environmental work.
With the river undammed, the question of anadromous fish returning has been on many anglers’ minds. Some may be strays from other river systems, McMillan says. “But the majority are likely derived from the resident rainbows that were stuck above the dams. They don’t lose their ability to migrate to the ocean.”
Biologists are currently testing both theories via fin clip samples, with clues being analyzed by National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Whatever the results reveal, the reason to celebrate is apparent. “The story of the Elwha gives hope to many dammed-off areas where anadromous fish have become extinct,” Anderson says. “We’re seeing the return of a perfect steelhead river—cold water, big boulders, five major canyons, and a life-filled ecosystem.”
Reminder: the Elwha remains closed to fishing. Anderson’s film is scheduled for release this winter.