Once an environmental and economic mainstay of the Pacific Northwest, salmon are now so scarce that their status is provoking fights across the region. But on a quiet Washington river, locals long at loggerheads are teaming up to bring the fish back.
By Susan McGrath
by Brian Smale
The Olympic Peninsula juts like an ax blade from Washington's northwest coast. Mountains make up most of it, and the rivers tend to be short and steep. The Dungeness is no exception. Here, just 10 miles from the sea, it gets its shoulder up against your waders, and you have to lean into it to stay upright. In the moss-green, under-cedar light of this early fall morning, a lanky Jamestown S'Klallam tribal biologist named Byron Rot is scrutinizing the river's riffles and pools. Chinook salmon are running upstream now, and Rot is pretty sure he can find one to show meif not one alive and spawning, then one fulfilling what biologists believe to be another key function of Pacific salmon: decomposing, bequeathing to its native watershed the nutrients it gleaned while at sea.
We have scaled logjams, skirted mossy banks, peered hard at the water's mica surface, and seen no salmon, though we've spotted a couple of redds. These nests look like something from the oeuvre of environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy, long gray-green ovals of river cobble swept clean of the muck and pebbles that color the surrounding bottom. "A female salmon digs this nest with her tail," Rot explains, "wearing the flesh to the bone."
When the female is done, the redd may cover 30 square feet of river bottom and contain up to 5,000 pearly pink eggs. The female lingers, guarding her redd for up to two weeks before she dies. If any of her offspring survive, they, too, will someday return here to their native gravel to spawn.
Once the bottom of much of the river's main stem would have been dappled with redds at this time of year. We find two. So far I've seen no adult salmon, living or dead. It's not a particularly heartening score. Nevertheless, heartening things are happening on the Dungeness. In a historic first for salmon country, stakeholders here have met, fought, argued, researched, brainstormed, fought, arguedand, ultimately, compromised. The result is a river that can support its native salmon, and a river center where its people can celebrate the salmon's survival.
No one knows exactly how many salmon ran the Dungeness before settlers came, but biologists estimate that 8,000 chinook made their way from the Pacific Ocean, across the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and up the river every fall. In the summer more than 50 times that many pink salmon, the watershed's keystone species, spawned here, along with coho, chum, and steelhead. In almost any given month, you could find rivers so thick with fish that "you could walk across the water on their backs," as old-timers here like to say.
At those times, you could smell the river a mile away. Decaying salmon carcasses lay tucked under logs, wedged beneath overhanging roots, bobbing in eddies all up and down the river. The fish fed the whole watershedbear, wolf, coyote, raven, young fish and other small aquatic life, trees and streamside plants, and several thousand members of the S'Klallam tribe. Tribal members trapped the fish in weirs at the mouth of the river and gave thanks to the Salmon King, who lived under the sea, for bestowing the gift of salmon on the people.
Historically, the Jamestown S'Klallam lived much like other Northwest coastal tribes. They fished for salmon, curing it for the lean months, and collected crabs, clams, oysters, and mussels in the estuary's lush salt marshes. They paddled dugout canoes, wove intricate baskets, and held potlatchestraditional feasts for the purpose of redistributing wealth and forming alliances. In 1855, under pressure from the U.S. government, the Jamestown S'Klallam gave up their claim to 438,000 acres of land, though they reserved the right to fish, hunt, and gather on the North Olympic Peninsula. Twenty years later, when the government moved to consolidate coastal tribes onto reservations, some S'Klallam families pooled $500 in gold coins and bought 200 acres near the Dungeness River. Calling themselves the Jamestown S'Klallam Community (for their leader, James Balch), they continued to subsist on the dwindling salmon and shellfish, while loggers and farmers began to transform the landscape around them.
When settlers started to arrive in the early 1850s, they planted potatoes and founded dairy farms, commercial fishing and logging operations, and the town of Sequim (pronounced "squim"). Over time they logged the watershed, bulldozed and burned the natural logjams that slowed the river's flow, diked the river out of its floodplain and estuary, and diverted water to a system of irrigation ditches 97 miles long. White fishermen leapfrogged one another, catching returning salmon farther and farther from the river's mouth.
In 1963, the first year they were counted, 400,000 pinks flashed up the Dungeness. By 1981 the population had crashed to 2,900. Biologists were delighted to count 60,000 pinks in 2001, but violent floods scoured the river that winter, and eggs and fry may have been flushed out to sea. Scientists won't know the effects for certain until later this fall.
The salmon that run individual rivers are genetically distinctthey have evolved in response to the conditions particular to their river. However, for purposes of regulation, the federal government groups several runs together into what it calls "evolutionarily significant units." Because closely related pinks are doing reasonably well elsewhere, the pinks in the Dungeness aren't protected under the Endangered Species Act. Thanks to healthier marine conditions, they have actually shown improvement in the past three years. Not so chinook and summer chum, which are listed as "threatened" in the Dungeness Riveras they are in Hood Canal and Puget Sound, just east of the Dungeness along the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Biologists would be ecstatic to flag 300 chinook redds in the river. "What you're looking at is a native salmon run on life support," Rot says.
Salmon runs are in trouble all up and down the Washington, Oregon, and California coasts. Rivers and streams that once nursed thousands of fish have seen their populations dwindle, despite dizzying sums of money spent on salmon recovery$3 billion on the Columbia River alone, by some accounts. Except for a few notable exceptions throughout salmon country, commercial and sport fishermen, farmers, native tribes, environmental activists, and local and state agencies are at one another's throats.
This can no longer be said of the Dungeness. It has been a drought year here, as it has been throughout the Northwest, but the river's chinook aren't gasping in warm puddles as they once did so famously in the Klamath River to the south, or even as they did here only 15 years ago.
If you happened to catch the Irrigation Festival in Sequim this May, you might have wondered about a prominent banner's slogan: "Where Water Is Wealth!" After all, the Olympic Peninsula ranks among the wettest places on earth, drenched, in some spots, by 144 inches of rain a year. But tucked into the rain shadow cast by the mountains, the Dungeness watershed averages only 15 inches, and precious little of that falls during the growing season. Seven irrigation ditches take water from the Dungeness, supplying 5,600 acres of farmland in a 47-square-mile area. Sequim takes half of its water from the river, too. Most of the year there is enough to go around. The pinch point comes during the first two weeks in Septemberprecisely when the chinook are running.
In the fall of 1987 the region experienced a drought so severe you
could step across the river; the summer run of pinks had to be trucked
upstream. At a contentious meeting arranged by a county commissioner,
the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe accused farmers of taking too much water.
"How much water do the fish need?" the farmers countered.
No one knew.
"How much water are you taking?" asked the tribe.
No one knew that either.
"It showed the importance of data," says Ann Seiter, natural resources director for the tribe. Subsequent measurements showed that the irrigation districts were taking 82 percent of the river's flow." The figure was horrifying to us," remembers Seiter, "but it came as a shock to the irrigators, too. No one wanted the river to run dry."
The finding galvanized everyone involved with the riverthe tribe, the Clallam County government, farmers, irrigation districts, property owners, conservationists, and state and federal agencies. As Mike Jeldness, the coordinator of the Sequim Dungeness Valley Agricultural Water Users Association, points out, "You can put a lot of pipes in irrigation ditches and install a lot of logjams for what you pay lawyers to duke it out in court."
The groups formed the Dungeness River Management Team and negotiated a groundbreaking agreement: The agricultural water users would take no more than 50 percent of the water in the river at any time, though they are legally entitled to a figure five times what's actually there in a dry August and September. In return, state and federal agencies guaranteed that the irrigators wouldn't lose their rights to the unused water. The Jamestown S'Klallam used their grant-writing skills to help bring this goal within reach; they raised more than $1.5 million to improve the efficiency of the 100-year-old irrigation system. The results showed in 2001, another drought year, when the river's water levels matched 1987 levels almost exactly. This time, irrigators made do with only 33 percent of the Dungeness's flow.
"You can shout 'water rights' and 'treaty rights' across the table at each other till you're blue in the face," says Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe. "But people here have found that cooperation is a lot more effective than fighting."
Since they have guaranteed there will be some water in the river, the management team now aims to improve habitat by removing dikes, re-creating meanders, planting trees, and installing beneficial logjams to slow seasonal floods. An additional elementone that's fundamental to the team's workis to teach those who live in the Dungeness watershed about the river's importance. "We can't restore this river on our own," Allen says. "The people living around the river need to care deeply about itfuture decision makers as well as current ones. Education is key."
And so in 2002 the Rainshadow Natural Science Foundation, recently renamed the River Center Foundation; the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe; the Olympic Peninsula Audubon Society (known locally as OPAS); and the National Audubon Society opened the Dungeness River Audubon Center on 28 acres of the most intact reach of the lower river, at the site of an old railroad trestle. The center offers the public access to the river, a place where people can walk out and see the water flowing in high season and in low, and quite possibly spot a salmon, too. The river management team meets here once a month. Schoolchildren come for hands-on science lessons. Community members attend programs on topics as varied as migratory birds and septic tank maintenance. And an energetic group of volunteers, many of them retired professionals and most of them active members of OPAS, turn out for one of what center founder Annette Hanson calls "sweat equity projects"swinging hammers, building trails, restoring eroded streambanks.
"The uniqueness of the story is in the strength of its partners," says Hanson, who is also vice-president of the River Center Foundation and a past president of OPAS, and has been a member of National Audubon since she was in the fifth grade. "Even if we haven't always agreed with each other, we respect each other and work together as friends. That's why we're successful."
"We, as a community, have big decisions ahead of us," says Bob Boekelheide, the center's director and a former middle school science teacher in Sequim. "Education isn't only about direct impact on salmon. Wal-Mart, Target, and Home Depot plan to open stores here, projects that'll pave more than 100 acres. We have a lowland elk herd grazing wild right here in Sequim, and their migration corridor goes through areas that might become a shopping center. Farmland is being sold for housing and commercial development. How much growth can we sustain without sacrificing the qualities we prize? Here at the river center, we don't advocate. We educate. This place gives us a way to reach people and helps improve the likelihood that we can develop a way of life here that's increasingly in harmony with nature."
Tribal biologist Byron Rot and I throw our waders into the truck, drive back through Sequim, and rejoin the river eight miles downstream, where it runs between two farms. This is a different Dungenessflatter, slower, more open, corralled by dikes into a single bed. Sunlight glitters on the streams. Yellowing Scouler's willows shimmer on the gravel bars, and the zigzag peaks of the Olympics float overhead. We bump slowly up onto the western dike and creep along it.
There! On the shallow bank of a gravel bar, a bald eagle is making a meal of a chinook. The hooked yellow beak tears at the fishone, two, three gouges at a time. When the bird tosses its big white head back to swallow, the salmon bucks beneath it. The eagle flaps awkwardly. With a splash, the fish bucks again, smacking the bird with a mutilated tail. At this, Rot leans back against the seat of the pickup with a satisfied nod. This is a spawned-out female, he tells me. Chances are good she's already closed the circle of a salmon's life. After five years at sea, she has come home to her native river, dug a redd, chosen a mate, and fertilized and deposited her precious eggs.
"The eagle can have her now," Rot says, starting up the engine with a smile. "That's how it's supposed to work."
Susan McGrath wrote about hyacinth macaws in the December 2002 Audubon.