A Trip to the Elwha: Part 5, It's About the Salmon


© Jon Sharpe, 2013

(Continued from Part 4 of this series, "The Challenge of the Sediment.")

It is because of the salmon that the Elwha dams are gone. Lower Elwha Klallam Tribal members had wanted the dams removed long before they petitioned the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) not to relicense the Glines Canyon Dam in 1986. (The Elwha Dam was never licensed).

Before the Elwha Dam was built, the Elwha River was home to ten fish runs, and that's no fish story. All five Pacific salmon species - sockeye, pink, chum, coho, and chinook - as well as steelhead and bull trout returned to the Elwha to spawn. Fish swam up and down the river all year long. The chinook were monstrous, spending as long as 7 years at sea and growing to 100 pounds. Tribal elder Louisa Sampson recalled that there were so many salmon on the Elwha you could walk across the river on their backs. Today, the Elwha sockeye are extinct, the pink are nearly gone, and chinook, steelhead and bull trout are protected by the Endangered Species Act. The steelhead run amounts to 100-200 fish, and the chinook catch is limited to ceremonial use.

The Elwha chinook are called tyee which means chief. They have continued their autumn return for 100 years, but their efforts have been futile because the migration was blocked by the Elwha Dam. The habitat in the 5 miles of river below the Dam became unsuitable for spawning since it lacked the gravel, pools, side channels and riffles, (rocky shoals or sandbars just below the water's surface) the fish need to build a nest. Before the dams were removed, the chinook would swim to beneath the Elwha Dam and hang in the water, or line up facing the dam as if they were waiting for a passage to open. Many thousands died unspawned at the base of the dam. Bringing back the tyee is what the Elwha River restoration is about. It is happening, in part at least, because of native fishing rights.


The Lower Elwha Klallam tribal crest is painted on the side of their Tribal Visitor and Community Center. The tribe's motto is "The Strong People".

The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe was once the largest tribe on the Olympic Peninsula. Beginning in the 1850's, white settlers pushed the Indians off their village sites where the Port Angeles waterfront is today. Tribal members supported themselves by subsistence fishing and selling fish to the townspeople. That worked until 1910 when the river was dammed and Washington State game wardens began to arrest and jail tribal fishermen for fishing in the Elwha. In 1935 when federal land agents came to Port Angeles to appraise farms for the purpose of acquiring 3840 acres for a reservation, the assistant land negotiator wrote that tribal members survived by beach combing, unable to compete with the fishing industry and prevented by state Fish and Game laws from catching enough fish for their own food. The report states, "A dam on the Elwha River, owned and maintained by a pulp company, has ruined the spawning grounds of the trout and salmon." The tribe did not get their reservation until 1968. It amounts to 372 acres.

In 1974, the Boldt Decision of the US District Court ruled that the 1855 Treaty of Point No Point in which the tribes ceded their land, reserved tribal fishing rights in perpetuity. This meant that tribal members were entitled to fish the Elwha River and other traditional fishing areas in Washington without being harassed. It was a huge victory for the tribes. But now that they were guaranteed the right to fish, the habitat was degraded and the runs were dying. There were few fish in the Elwha.

Beatrice Charles was one of four Lower Elwha Klallam women elders who testified before the US Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in 1992. She said, "I would like to see the dams removed while I'm still alive." Later that year, the Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act was enacted. Final approval didn't come until 2004, following an agreement between the National Park Service, City of Port Angeles, and the tribe. Dam removal began on September 15, 2011. Beatrice Charles is buried in the tribal cemetery on Place Road, near the mouth of the Elwha. Her tombstone reads, "In loving memory of our Auntie Bea, May 14, 1919 - April 20, 2009."

The young tribal member staffing the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribal gift shop in Port Angeles told me that Beatrice Charles was his fiancée's Auntie Bea. He was hopeful about the Elwha restoration: "They say that in five years, the fish will come back. And that will be good for the tribe."

Next in Part 6 of this Story: A Perfect Storm of Opportunity


-- Marilyn Hair

Mapes, Lynda. Elwha A River Reborn. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books, 2013.