It has been more than ten years since the first of the Elwha River’s two dams was breached, and scientists are gaining new perspectives on the resilience of that ecosystem and its species. The dramatic sight of a river suddenly running free, and the swift return of its salmon has captured the public’s imagination. But a key factor driving the return of the Elwha’s fish populations is less visible. It exists in the microscopic realm, in the genes of the species.
We are pleased to kick off a new series this week in our magazine Salish Sea Currents. ‘Returning home: The Elwha’s genetic legacy’ is an in-depth look at how the behaviors and reproductive success of the Elwha’s salmon are driven by genetic changes brought about by dams. Now, as migratory salmon are free to swim in the upper Elwha River for the first time in 100 years, Christopher Dunagan’s seven-part series examines how the fish are doing and whether the Elwha’s genetic legacy remains intact.
The series begins with three stories. The first provides an overview of the influence of dams on the Elwha and the toll of 100 years of genetic isolation. Part two looks at migratory steelhead, one of the river’s great success stories. Part three poses one of the biggest questions facing Elwha researchers: Will the mighty Chinook once again fight their way through the river’s upper rapids, or is the prospect of seeing 100-pound “Tyees” in the Elwha forever lost? In the following week we will continue with more findings on other salmonids returning to the Elwha, including sockeye, bull trout, cohos, pinks and chums. Dunagan will also report on the remarkable recovery of another spawning fish, the prehistoric-looking lamprey.
The series is the product of months of research by Dunagan, who also writes the Our Water Ways blog and serves as a senior writer at the Puget Sound Institute. Such in-depth reporting is rare in journalism these days and we hope ‘Returning home’ will be indispensable to anyone who wants to understand the importance of individual salmon populations not just in the Elwha but throughout the Salish Sea. It shows that every salmon run is unique and contains within it a treasure trove of genetic history vital to the integrity of the ecosystem.