Elwha River test fishery looks at potential fishing methods

The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe is testing selective fishing methods on the Elwha River with the hope of reopening the river to fishing.

Tribal and nontribal fishing has been prohibited since 2011—when removal began of the river’s two fish-blocking dams after 100 years of operation—to protect the species during habitat restoration efforts. The moratorium is still in place and is evaluated annually.

The river historically was known for its chinook and steelhead populations, both of which the tribe and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) have worked to boost before, during and after dam removal.

Those populations, as well as other fish species, were important fisheries for the tribal community, but suffered significant declines while the dams were in the river, said Ray Moses, the tribe’s project biologist overseeing the study. The dams also contributed to the listing of chinook and steelhead as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The idea is that the chosen method used by tribal fishermen will help the tribe catch surplus hatchery fish while releasing natural origin fish as the Elwha River watershed continues to recover, Moses said.

In anticipation of the study, tribal harvesters were asked about their preferred fishing methods for the Elwha River.

Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe staff Wilson Wells and Ray Moses hold a chinook salmon caught in the test fishery. Photo: Tiffany Royal

“This was an important component because the fishers are the primary target for the outcome of this project, and their acceptance of the selected method will be critical,” Moses said. “The fishers know what works for them and how to catch fish in the Elwha in general, so they’re bringing a wealth of ideas for this work.”

Another part of the study is figuring out which methods result in the fewest mortalities of the targeted fish while also reducing bycatch such as bull trout, said Roger Peters, a supervisory research fisheries biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is a partner on the project.

The tribal and federal staff ran the test fishery for chinook weekly in July and August, fishing at two different locations on the river, drifting a 6-inch mesh gillnet for no more than five minutes at a time during a six-hour period. The team will run similar test fisheries for coho this winter and steelhead in spring 2023. 

Other methods tested included set gillnets with two different mesh sizes, but they were not successful in catching fish, so the team decided to focus on the drift net method with the 6-inch gillnet, Peters said.

All chinook were tagged with an identification number. A portion were taken to WDFW’s hatchery on the Elwha River to be monitored for long-term survival until they’re spawned by the state for its broodstock program. The remainder of the chinook were released back into the river, some of which were radio-tagged for tracking their migration and survival to spawning. For the coho and steelhead, they also will be tagged on site but then transported to and monitored at the tribe’s hatchery.

As both a natural resources technician for the tribe and tribal fisher, Vanessa Castle sees the benefits of the study from both perspectives.

“I see why it’s necessary being on the scientific side, why it would be important for us to try to leave our natural origin fish while we’re still in this restoration phase,” she said. “It’s really exciting to me that they’re at least looking at possibilities of being able to have a sustainable harvest for subsistence to feed our people.”

Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff pull in drift gill net during the 2022 chinook salmon test fishery on the Elwha River. Story and photo: Tiffany Royal