High on the main stem of the Elwha River, as the winter rays from the December sun filter through the water, a tiny Chinook salmon emerges from the gravel on the riverbed. Soon it will start to venture down the free-flowing river through Washington’s Olympic Peninsula in search of the ocean. In the estuary, like a creature out of a science fiction film, its kidneys will transform to handle the saltwater while its body will change color to match the sea. Then it will head up the continental shelf in a monumental migration to the open ocean and the Alaskan gyre. Years later, it will use the geomagnetic fields in the ocean like a GPS system to find its way home, until it can literally smell the river in which it was born. It will fight the currents on its way back home to spawn, and then perish after planting the seeds for the next generation.
That fish is the hope of Puget Sound.
Wild salmon runs in the Pacific Northwest have taken a steep nosedive over the last few decades. Where once the waters of Puget Sound and the greater Salish Sea teemed with millions of these fish, their populations have drifted to around 3–10% of those once mighty numbers, and 27 native salmon runs in the Pacific Northwest are now listed as endangered. A report from the American Fisheries Society found that 106 runs had already disappeared by 1991. As an indicator of healthy rivers, and for the animals and people that depend on those waters and the cultures with salmon at their foundation, the loss of wild salmon is deeply alarming. But there is perhaps no more heart-wrenching result of the salmon’s decline than its impact on the orcas that frequent the Salish Sea.
In July, a calf was born to an orca named J35 off the coast of Victoria. The J Pod is one of three pods that make up the Southern Resident killer whale population. The birth was remarkable: it was the first pregnancy in three years to produce a viable offspring among this population. But only half an hour later, the newborn died. J35 carried the dead calf with her for 17 days, a heartbreaking display of grief that brought the plight of these orcas dead center in the national consciousness and gave the issue of salmon conservation heightened urgency.
Salmon make up 95% of the Southern Resident killer whales’ diet, with Chinook salmon the primary source. As the salmon have declined, so has the health of these orcas, and their ability to reproduce. J35 was only the most recent example. In 2014, her aunt J32 died with a full-term calf she’d been unable to birth. Over the last two decades, 75% of babies born to this population have not survived, a mournful harbinger for this population that used to support 200 individuals, but is now down to only 73.
As human populations around the Sound have soared into the tens of millions, estuaries and marine areas have been developed and simplified, removing the wood, eelgrass, and other natural features salmon need.
There are multiple factors responsible for the dwindling wild salmon in this region. “Habitat loss is perhaps the biggest issue,” says John McMillan, Science Director for Trout Unlimited’s Wild Steelhead Initiative. As human populations around the Sound have soared into the tens of millions, estuaries and marine areas have been developed and simplified, removing the wood, eelgrass, and other natural features salmon need.
Other factors play a role as well, though. Hatchery fish, like those from the Skagit River, seem to be having a negative effect on the wild salmon, both in competing for food and in interbreeding, weakening the gene pool and resulting in smaller fish. Dams on the myriad rivers that flow into the Sound restrict the salmon’s migration back to their spawning grounds. While salmon will still spawn below a dam, it drastically limits their diversity and leaves populations severely vulnerable to disaster.
In a healthy river system, salmon spawn in creeks, in the main stem of rivers, over several miles of riverbed, and at different times of year. “Once we truncate the distribution with a dam, they’re less resilient,” McMillan explains. “Think of it as if the entire population of a big city lived in one square mile. If a tornado came through that area, everyone would be wiped out by a single disaster.”
Just as there are many factors responsible for the salmon’s decline, there are several interlocking solutions to their recovery. American Rivers is working to restore some of the floodplains and estuaries in the region that are so necessary for a healthy fish habitat, for example. Along with American Whitewater, they’re spearheading the removal of the Middle Fork Nooksak Dam to restore 16 miles of habitat for the Chinook salmon, among other species.
Not all dams are appropriate for removal in our modern world, making it unrealistic as a blanket solution. Take the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project, with three dams on the upper Skagit that provide electricity to millions in Seattle to power hospitals, schools, and homes. Not only is it a necessary power source that would be exceedingly difficult to replace, it’s also a showcase project of a utility that is done well, with all three of its dams upstream of a natural barrier to fish passage and as the first large hydroelectric facility certified as a Low Impact Hydropower Project.
But some dams can and should be removed, like the ones on the Elwha. Dammed in the early 1900s, the constructions disrupted the flow of sediment downstream and the migration of salmon upstream, in addition to flooding historic homelands and cultural sites of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe. The Elwha Dam was removed in 2012, and the Glines Canyon Dam was dismantled in 2014, in the biggest dam removal project the country had ever undertaken.
The steelhead population began doubling in size almost immediately. But the Chinook struggled in the Elwha’s waters, now murky with a century’s worth of sediment unleashed as the dams came down. Numbers stayed ominously low.
That is until last year, when the Chinook finally came home in droves.
“I grew up fishing in the Northwest with my grandfather and my dad, and they always told me that I was born 30 years too late for the great fish runs,” says McMillan.
“But now, maybe some kid will tell his father that he needs to live an extra 30 years. The Elwha is an example of hope, and we need that right now.”
There’s still a vast amount of work to do to heal the waters that feed into Puget Sound and the Salish Sea beyond. But the Elwha is a positive signal of reversal. It’s a glimmer of hope that the orcas might return from the brink of starvation, that perhaps we will not have to bear witness over and over to such grief as J35’s long death vigil, and that the rivers will run red with salmon once again.