The fish are back, and so are the fishers.
The Tribal Ceremonial and Subsistence Fishery for coho salmon on the Elwha River will be open for a limited time during fall 2023 for the first time in …
The fish are back, and so are the fishers.
The Tribal Ceremonial and Subsistence Fishery for coho salmon on the Elwha River will be open for a limited time during fall 2023 for the first time in more than a decade, Washington state officials announced this week.
Since time immemorial, the Elwha River system has been central to Elwha Klallam culture and lifeways. Up until the early 20th century, Elwha Tribal fishers relied on subsistence fishing in the Elwha River to provide for their families. For more than 100 years, the Elwha River dams blocked salmon access to more than 90 percent of the river, devastating the once-abundant salmon population in this system.
Since the start of dam removal in 2011, the Tribe, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Olympic National Park 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.
The groups agreed to extend the closure of other recreational and commercial fisheries in the Elwha River for another year. The Ceremonial and Subsistence Fishery, meanwhile, will provide an opportunity for Tribal fishers to access local fish from their namesake river for the first time in more than a decade.
“I look forward to fishing the Elwha River. I have been on the river most of my life,” said Lower Elwha Klallam Vice Chairman Russ Hepfer.
“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,” Hepfer said.
“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.”
Coho salmon recovery has been a success story, thanks to the Tribe’s hatchery and fish relocation efforts during and after the dam removal process, state officials said. The Tribe will conduct a harvest with a limited amount of adult coho salmon at the Ceremonial and Subsistence Fishery on the lower 3 miles of the Elwha River in October.
Officials said the timing of the fishery is designed to minimize impacts to non-target salmonid species, particularly federally listed Chinook and steelhead.
“We join the Tribe and project partners in celebrating the renewal of Pacific Salmonids to the Elwha River and Olympic National Park,” said Olympic National Park Superintendent Sula Jacobs.
“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.
“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,” Jacobs added.
“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.”
State officials also noted the significance of the opening.
“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 James Losee, regional fish program manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “Ceremonial and 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 fishery will be strictly regulated and include a mix of hand-held gear and river nets. Nets will be limited to half the span of the river.
This fishery will be intensively monitored by Tribal fisheries biologists and enforcement officers for compliance with regulations and to guarantee 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, according to the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.
Elwha River fish recovery monitoring is a long-term, cooperative effort involving the Tribe, Olympic National Park, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey, and Washington state. 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 groups continue to evaluate Elwha River coho salmon population data and 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.
State officials said 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. Mountain lakes in the Elwha basin within Olympic National Park and Lake Sutherland will remain open to sport fishing from the fourth Saturday in April through Oct. 31.