When there’s so much to do and see in Olympic National Park like moody beaches, verdant green rainforests, waterfalls and mountain peaks, you might be tempted to overlook something as humble as a fish, but you’d be remiss to visit this stunning part of the United States without taking some time to get to know one of its most important residents: the salmon. Revered by everyone in the Pacific Northwest from the tribes who have called this area home for time immemorial to wildlife like bears and eagles to fishermen to tourists, salmon are a vital part of the Olympic Peninsula.
Start learning about salmon at one of the many eateries around the Olympic Peninsula. At the elegant Finistère (www.restaurantfinistere.com) in Port Townsend, you can dine on salmon with farro and sweet corn. Or, you can head out to the western coast and enjoy a salmon Cesar salad or sockeye salmon sandwich at Kalaloch Lodge’s Creekside Restaurant (www.thekalalochlodge.com) for lunch.
But to really understand salmon on the peninsula, visit to Finnriver Farm & Cidery (www.finnriver.com) in Chimacum. While the main draw of Finnriver is its hard cider, the entire farm is a crash course on how humans interact with an environment. You’ll have time to visit the gift store, take in live music on the patio and enjoy a dozen oysters or a wood-fired pizza with a pint of cider in a bit, but before you get too comfortable, you’ll want to get a lay of the land.
Opt for the Orchard Tour and Cider Tasting on summer weekends where you’ll get to know the entire 80-acre certified organic operation and taste incredible ciders along the way. While you’ll learn about everything from cider making to innovation around organic seeds to how geese can help upkeep an orchard, take note of the North Olympic Salmon Coalition’s (Salmon Coalition) native plant nursery located on the farm.
The Salmon Coalition is one of 14 community-based nonprofits called Regional Fisheries Enhancement Groups in Washington focusing on salmon habitat restoration and education. Its mission is incredibly important as salmon in the Pacific Northwest have faced some serious adversity over the last century.
Salmon’s Role in the Olympic Peninsula’s Ecosystem
The salmon of the Olympic Peninsula are a rugged yet fragile group of anadromous fish. The largest of the Olympic salmon species, the Chinook, can grow up to five feet long and weigh up to 126 pounds. They spend most of their lives in the Pacific Ocean, thriving on an abundance of food and nutrients. When salmon are ready to spawn, or reproduce, they swim from the ocean upstream to rivers to lay their eggs away from predators.
Female salmon swim tens to hundreds of miles fighting currents and rapids to reproduce. They require a very specific type of riverbed to lay their eggs in and most salmon return to the place where they hatched, guided by smell and the earth’s magnetic field, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, to spawn.
Female salmon die shortly after laying their eggs because of the long and arduous journey. That means a female salmon gets one shot at reproducing. More than 130 species feed on their bodies, either as their major food source, or a source of sustenance when other food is scarce. Bears, otters, eagles and more often depend on salmon to survive.
The tribes of the Olympic Peninsula have also long relied on salmon as for both sustenance and as an important part of their culture. From health outcomes to economics to spirituality, salmon are intricately woven into the lives of tribes across the peninsula like the Lower Elwha Klallam.
Stop at the Sol Duc River Salmon Cascades Overlook in Fall and Spring
Salmon, trout, and steelhead are born in the Sol Duc River, but spend most of their lives in the Pacific Ocean before returning to spawn. Chinook and coho salmon ascend the Sol Duc in late summer and spawn in late fall, while cutthroat trout and steelhead run in the fall and winter and spawn into the spring. The salmon actually smell their way upstream, in search of the same waters where they hatched from the gravel a few years before. On the way to Sol Duc Hot Springs, Pull over to stand on the riverside platform to watch the fish leap the Salmon Cascades in season.
Dams Spell Trouble for Salmon Populations
Salmon aren’t just integral to the wildlife and the people who live near Olympic National Park, however. Their bodies bring all sorts of rich nutrients from the ocean to the peninsula’s ecosystem. Their decomposing bodies, either in the rivers or carried into the surrounding landscape by wildlife, are full of nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients that help the surrounding vegetation grow. According to Alaska Fish & Wildlife, trees surrounding rivers with a salmon population grow up to three times as fast as trees surrounding salmon-free rivers.
This spelled a problem for the Elwha River, which runs through Olympic National Park, beginning at its headwaters in the Olympic Mountains to its estuary at the Pacific Ocean. In the early 1900s, two dams were built on the Elwha to provide hydropower for the growing port city of Port Angeles and the area’s logging industry. The river that was once fertile spawning grounds for salmon became a ghost of its former self, with its sediment so vital to the creation of a healthy river for salmon and other species trapped behind the dams.
The salmon population in the Elwha and across the entire Pacific Northwest seriously dwindled as more and more dams were built.
Robert Elofson, a member of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe that still live along the Elwha today, has spent his entire career working to bring salmon back to the Elwha River.
During one summer in college, Elofson was working on a trail and fire crew in Olympic National Park. He remembers hiking up past the Elkhorn Ranger Station close to the headwaters of the Elwha and watching the river.
“I was thinking how gorgeous it was,” Elofson remembers. “I thought to myself, ‘If only it had salmon.’”
Elofson began his education at Western Washington University studying physics until he realized there was no job for a physicist back in his home on the Olympic Peninsula.
Two of his tribal elders suggested he study biology to help the tribe and the river. At that point in the 1970s, it didn’t look like there was much need for a biologist to study fish in the rivers. The Lower Elwha Klallam’s 90 acres of ancestral beaches had all but disappeared.
“It was almost as if they could see the future,” Elofson reflects of his elders.
He followed their advice and became the tribe’s fisheries manager in 1976.
Two years earlier in 1974, the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe’s fishing rights were finally recognized from an 1855 treaty. It was a long, arduous journey from that recognition in 1974 to September 2011 when the dams were finally removed and the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe began to again recognize the river that had long flowed through their history.
When Elofson would visit the river during salmon spawning in the fall, he began to see 30-40 Chinook salmon backs cutting the water at a time as they made their way upstream. The largest run recorded during the dams’ tenure was 4,200 salmon according to Elofson. Since the dams removal, there have been multiple runs of over 7,000 fish. The prediction for fully restored runs is in the tens of thousands.
“I hope it comes to pass,” Elofson reflects.
The removal of the dams brought celebration across the peninsula from the tribes who rely on salmon as vital part of their culture and economy to scientists and environmentalists.
When the long-trapped sediment washed down the river, restoring habitat along its way and creating a path for the salmon to return to their historic breeding grounds, it was just one step in ensuring the species not only survives but thrives.
The Future of Salmon Habitat Restoration
The Elwha Restoration Project is a success story that’s well-known, but there is still much work to be done across the peninsula to ensure that salmon species like the Chinook have a future in Washington’s waters.
That’s where the Salmon Coalition comes in. Its work focuses on the waters across the Strait of San Juan de Fuca, helping make the waterways more hospitable for salmon and in turn, other species as well.
The organization does this through a variety of methods from volunteer-led planting days to large earth-moving projects with local contractors and partnerships with local schools. All of this work is done in tandem with the local community like the tribes that call the peninsula home, cities, counties and more.
One of the biggest successes the Salmon Coalition has had according to education and outreach associate, Lexi Wagor, was the Kilisut Harbor Restoration Project. Historically, Kilisut Harbor south of Port Townsend was connected to Oak Bay through a large tidal channel and salt marsh, allowing water and sediment to move freely and making it a perfect spot for juvenile salmon to migrate. A causeway was built in the 1940s, making it easier for humans to travel between Indian and Marrowstone islands. However, this choked the flow of water between the two areas.
“The causeway only had two culverts,” Wagor explains. “It was like trying to force millions of gallons of tidal water through a straw.”
Tidal water trickled through the culverts, sand stopped moving and the channel became a sand dune. Without cold water flushing into Kilisut Harbor every day, the traditionally cold waters of Kilisut Harbor heated up. Without the tidal flushing, algal blooms like the dreaded red tide became more frequent, killing off plants and wildlife.
The restoration project replaced the earthen causeway with a bridge that was safer for cars and bikes and also returned the tidal flushing to the harbor in August 2020. This passageway is also strategic for salmon as it’s located opposite of a shipping lane, making it a safer passage for young fish to get to the Pacific Ocean.
“I didn’t expect to see how quickly it made a difference,” Wagor reflects. “Standing on the bridge you can see huge schools of bait fish. The small salmon can now access Kilisut Harbor’s extensive eel grass beds and shallow waters to feed and grow. There’s even people catching cutthroat trout in the channel now.”
The below photo makes it obvious what an impact the tidal flushing has had on the harbor.
These programs are funded in part by recreationists like you. One dollar of every personal fishing license in Washington and $100 of every commercial fishing license goes to support organizations like the North Olympic Salmon Coalition. Stop by Big 5 Sporting Goods in Port Angeles or Walmart in Port Angeles or Sequim to purchase your fishing license and support these projects.
Wagor’s favorite part of the Salmon Coalition’s work, however, is the education component. Each year a different 7th grade class participates in a program where the students take on the role of professionals to restore salmon habitat and design, execute and maintain real-world revegetation plans that benefit streams and estuaries favored by salmon.
Robert Elofson from the Lower Elwha Tribe acknowledges that salmon habitat restoration still has a long way to go on the Olympic Peninsula, but he’s hopeful. A videographer who documented the Elwha Dam Restoration Project told Elofson that he could see the difference in the tribe’s demeanor as the salmon returned to the river.
“We’re nothing but all smiles now,” Elofson reflects. “We’ve not even seen the large returns yet. I can’t imagine seeing them in five to 10 years.”
Want to see how you can help the peninsula’s salmon population on your next vacation? Head to nosc.org/events to find ways to help count fish populations, plant native trees and shrubs and more.