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Will 100-pound salmon return to Elwha?

College students conduct a fish survey at the mouth of the Elwha River near Port Angeles, Wash., in 2008.  (Associated Press)
College students conduct a fish survey at the mouth of the Elwha River near Port Angeles, Wash., in 2008. (Associated Press)

PORT ANGELES, Wash. – Tales of the Elwha River’s legendary 100-pound chinook salmon fueled the debate over tearing down the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams.

But when the 108-foot Elwha Dam and the 210-foot Glines Canyon Dam are no more, will the mystical big fish return, riding the same genetic makeup that pushed them to supposedly grow to such prodigious proportions so long ago?

And did supersize salmon exist on the Elwha in the first place?

One thing is for certain: The tear-down debate over the dams is so 1990s.

Those walls of the two dams — bulwarks against salmon survival for nearly 100 years — will be gone by late 2014, more than two decades after their removal was mandated by the 1992 federal Elwha Act.

Dismantling is slated to begin in late 2011 in the project, which is estimated to cost $350 million.

By 2039, the river should be replenished to its pre-dam level with all five species of Pacific salmon — 400,000 spawning annually, up from the current, comparatively minuscule 3,000, according to the National Park Service, which is in charge of the project.

Since 1913 the Elwha Dam — built without fish passages, like the Glines Canyon Dam — has stood just 5 miles from the Strait of Juan de Fuca, fortress-like, impenetrable and deadly, blocking 65 miles of the nutrient-rich river to spawn-hungry salmon.

“The fish have been pounding their heads against it for 100 years trying to get upstream,” said river restoration project manager Brian Winter, a National Park Service fisheries biologist who has spent most of his professional life studying the Elwha River dams and their impact on fish.

There are no photos of the Elwha’s purported 100-pound salmon in the state historical archives or the records of the Clallam County Historical Society.

Still, salmon that size are more than a fairy tale, Winter said.

“They did indeed exist,” Winter said, pointing to historical accounts.

In 1790, Spanish explorer Manuel Quimper wrote that he bought “salmon of 100 pounds” from Native Americans in the Elwha River area, while the state Department of Fisheries 140 years later, in 1930, found “several males that would weigh 100 pounds each,” according to Bruce Brown, author of “Mountain in the Clouds: A Search for the Wild Salmon” (Simon and Schuster, 1981).

Francis Charles, Lower Elwha Klallam tribal chairwoman, was certain that 100-pounders plied the Elwha.

The big chinook, as heavy as bags of cement, were pulled from the Elwha River by tribal members who linked arms to land the fish, Charles said.

“They would have to hold on to one another to bring them to shore,” she said.

Hundred-pound salmon are known to exist in waters off Alaska, so they can thrive in the right conditions, Winter said.

Research indicates those conditions involve natural selection combined with the right environment, creating a genetic disposition toward large size, Winter said.

Before the dams blocked the Elwha, the river “contained many miles of ideal chinook spawning grounds, especially between Lost River and Long Creek,” Brown wrote.

To reach these shady riffles, salmon had to climb through a series of narrowing canyons and strong rapids that probably acted as a mechanism for the natural selection of larger fish, experts say.

When they returned to spawn, they were larger, stronger, laid more eggs and produced salmon that were inclined, like the fish that produced them, to being bigger and stronger.

Olympic National Park fisheries biologist Pat Crain said the comparatively colder, snow-fed waters of the Elwha also produced stronger chinook and may have contributed to their ability to stay longer at sea.

Brown said that once the chinook spawned and left the Elwha, they returned larger because some likely stayed at sea for 12 or more years, a number that Winter said he trusted.

“We don’t know why they stay out there and feed longer so they become 100-pounders,” Winter added.

Salmon retain a genetic memory, or imprint, of the “suite” of odors from the river, following those odors to spawn where they were produced, Winter said.

“The genetics that caused the 100-pounders are still there,” he added.

“The same environment that created the 100-pounders 100 years ago will be there for them to again become 100-pounders.”

While there are still 5 miles of unblocked habitat between the Elwha Dam and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the spawning conditions are less than ideal.

It consists of what was standing water heated by the sun that flows from Lake Mills behind Glines Canyon Dam, which is in the Olympic National Park, and Lake Aldwell behind Elwha Dam.

It is 2 to 4 degrees warmer than in the days of supersized salmon.

Chinook are not the only salmon expected to return to the Elwha in greater numbers.

Coho, steelhead pink, chum and sockeye also are expected to spawn in greater numbers in the main stem of the river and 30 miles of tributaries, Winter said.

By 2019, after an expected five-year moratorium on all fisheries, including tribal fisheries, ends for the Elwha, the river should have a fishery worth dropping a line in, Crain predicted.

The goal is to have all salmon that return to the Elwha, including Chinook, be wild stock, not hatchery bred, Winter said.

When can we expect to see 100-pound salmon again?

“No one can say how long it will take for that trait to be exhibited again,” Winter said.

“All we can say is the conditions for that life history trail should be available for 100-pounders to return again. As long as we give them access to the historic habitat, there’s nothing to prevent them from being hundred-pounders again.”