The kings are back.
Less than five months after the Elwha Dam was taken down, king salmon have been spotted migrating back up the Elwha River and into Olympic National Park.
The adult Chinook salmon were spotted Monday in the river. Park officials say these are the first observed Elwha River salmon to naturally migrate into the park. When the Elwha Dam became operational in 1913, 25 years before the establishment of the park, more than 70 miles of habitat were blocked to fish passage.
The Elwha River, which has the largest watershed in Olympic National Park, flows northward from the Olympic Mountains to the Strait of Juan de Fuca near the town of Port Angeles, Washington. Private companies constructed two large dams on the river during the early 1900s.
Elwha Dam, a 105-foot high concrete gravity dam, formed Lake Aldwell eight miles upstream from the river's mouth. Glines Canyon Dam, built in 1927, was a 210-foot high concrete arch dam that formed Lake Mills 13 miles upstream from the mouth of the river.
For years debate was waged over whether to take down the dams and restore the watersheds. Proponents noted restoration of the Elwha River would return the river "to its natural free-flowing state, allowing all five species of Pacific salmon and other anadromous fish to once again reach habitat and spawning grounds.
Work finally began on that goal earlier this year, and now the salmon are coming back. The Chinook spotted Monday were observed approximately two miles upstream from the boundary of the park by Phil Kennedy, lead fisheries technician for the park.
“We knew this was going to happen and as I saw the fish roll, my heart jumped!,” he said.
The fisheries crew has been conducting weekly surveys along the Elwha River since the start of August in search of Elwha River Chinook salmon in the park. The return of the salmon marks an important milestone in the restoration of the Elwha River ecosystem and a historic moment for the park.
“This has been an extremely exciting summer,” said acting-Superintendent Todd Suess. “First we see a renewal of a culture with the uncovering of the creation site of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, and now we see the renewal of the legendary Chinook in Olympic National Park.”
This milestone will be one of the many achievements shared during the Elwha River Science Symposium this week, when scientists will come together to discuss what has been learned during the first year of the Elwha River Restoration project.
“Observation of these Chinook in Olympic National Park is a wonderful addition to the naturally returning steelhead recently observed by NOAA Fisheries and Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe downstream of the park boundary,” said Olympic National Park Fisheries Biologist Sam Brenkman. “We can now say that restoration of anadromous salmon in Olympic National Park is under way.”