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For first time since dam removal, a fishery opens on the Elwha

A river flows between rocks, half in the shade and half in the sun
Lindsey Wasson
The Elwha River now flows freely near the site of the former Elwha Dam during the 2023 Tribal Climate Camp on the Olympic Peninsula Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023, near Port Angeles, Wash.

Members of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe are once again fishing for salmon on their home river, in the heart of the Olympic Peninsula. It’s a limited ceremonial and subsistence fishery, just for coho and only 400 of them – once that quota is reached, the season is over.

Commercial and recreational fishing on the Elwha remain closed.

It’s happening a decade after the removal of two hydroelectric dams that were up for more than a century. Dam removal, completed in 2014, set free more than 70 miles of river and habitat for fish, most of it located in the pristine wilderness of Olympic National Park.

With about 7,000 coho projected to return on the Elwha this fall, the run was deemed healthy enough for a very modest harvest.

Frances Charles, chairwoman of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, said seeing her people on the river again with rods and reels and nets, even for a short time, is a big deal.

“It's still like, ‘pinch me, am I dreamin?’ kind of thing. But I'm very honored and proud to be standing where I'm at,” she said.

Charles said she is part of a long line of tribal leadership in her family who, along with others, fought for decades for dam removal. Then they waited patiently for the fish runs to rebuild, implementing a voluntary moratorium on fishing from 2011 till now.

They celebrated the opening Monday amidst traditional drumming and dancing, ceremonies to bless the salmon and the water.

“In our earlier lives, we were told that this would never happen, that these rivers wouldn't be free as they are today,” Charles said. “It's still hard to believe.”

Now, she says they’re even called on as advisors for the next big dam removal underway, on the Klamath River along the Oregon-California border.

A white man in a baseball cap watches an Indigenous woman hug an Indigenous man next to a podium.
Ted S. Warren
Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, left, looks on as Lower Elwha Klallam tribal chairwoman Frances Charles, center, hugs Billy Frank Jr., right, the chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, during a ceremony to mark the beginning of the removal of the Elwha Dam and the restoration of the Elwha River, Saturday, Sept. 17, 2011, near Port Angeles, Wash.

The fishery is restricted to enrolled tribal members, with a catch limit of four fish per person per day. It will close as soon as 400 fish are caught.

The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, the state and Olympic National Park together approved this very limited fishery, a sign that restoration after dam removal is going in the right direction.

Charles heard many tribal members who fished the first day with handheld gear — nontraditional rods and reels — caught their quota in just a few hours.

“And then we'll be fishing Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and then probably about two weeks out, we'll go ahead and open it for gill net,” Charles said.

The nets will only be allowed at four sites and can only span half the river.

Even with the tight restrictions, catching salmon at home marks the beginning of a cultural revival for her tribe.

“It’s our medicine,” she said. “Being able to share that fish on to our family tables again, that is something that is very humbling to elders as well as the tribal community.”

Cooking the salmon outside on traditional wooden sticks and canning it, teaching their youngsters how to avoid wasting any part of the precious fish are among the activities elders will be able to do in the coming days, with an authenticity that has been missing, Charles said.

Instead of having to ask other tribes for fish, to get enough salmon for their community’s most important ceremonial events, the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe will now be able to eat from their own river.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to