LOWER ELWHA (February 11, 2008) – Perched on the tailgate of an old delivery truck in January, Mike McHenry was channeling the spirit of Santa Claus, as the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe habitat program manager handed out generous amounts of frozen coho carcasses to the tribe’s habitat restoration crew.

But these presents were intended for the Elwha River, not the crew. Industrial-strength green mesh bags were filled with two carcasses each and then staked into streambeds above one of the river’s two fish-blocking dams. The bags will be removed after the fish decompose.

Before construction of the dams in the early 1900s, salmon carcasses naturally played a major role in the ecosystem’s food web. They provided food for young salmon, trout and other wildlife. They also added nutrients to the river, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, which are necessary for plant growth.

Today, salmon can’t get past the lower dam and the populations above the dams are long gone and greatly depleted below the dams.

As part of the Elwha River habitat restoration plan, tribal staff placed more than 600 frozen spawned-out coho in the river’s side channels. The carcasses came from the 2006 and 2007 returns to the tribe’s hatchery.

“Fish haven’t been able to get up past the lower dam for 95 years, depleting the ecosystem of an important piece of the food chain,” McHenry said. “This area is perfect for an experiment like this. All the elements are here that are important to the Elwha system – except the salmon.”

The tribe and NOAA Fisheries will study the benefits of these carcasses to the river environment before dams are removed after 2010, said Sarah Morley, the NOAA research ecologist who developed the project.

The two dams, the 108-foot Elwha Dam and 210-foot Glines Canyon Dam, were built to provide hydroelectric power to Port Angeles. Both dams were built without fish ladders, preventing salmon from migrating upstream to spawn. Historically, the Elwha River produced 100-pound chinook.

The dams are owned by the federal government and the Olympic National Park is spearheading the removal effort. The total cost of the project is currently estimated at $308 million.


For more information, contact Mike McHenry, Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe habitat program manager, at (360) 457.4012 ext. 14 or mchenry@elwha.nsn.us; Sarah Morley, NOAA Fisheries research ecologist, at (206) 860.6780 or Sarah.Morley@noaa.gov; or Tiffany Royal, Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission information officer, at (360) 297.6546 or troyal@nwifc.org.