J Michelle Swope

River Steward Stories: Alex Bradberry

In this second installment of River Stories, we catch up with new River Steward, Alex Bradberry. Alex owns Waters West Fly Shop in Port Angeles, WA. Alex is nothing if not determined. When she was 6 years old, while reading a book on national parks, she came across the Olympic National Park. She decided then that she would one day live near that park. Flash forward to present day, Alex moved her partner Ed, and her dog "Elwha" to the Olympic Peninsula. They bought Waters West Fly Shop, and immediately got involved in conservation work. Alex picked the Elwha River as her watershed, although in her heart and always on her mind are all the great rivers on the Olympic Peninsula. When Alex isn't running the shop and dying materials for finicky fly tyers, you can find her fishing and talking with everyone she comes into contact with about restoring and bolstering wild runs of native fish. We are so pleased and excited to welcome Alex to our River Steward Program.

River Steward:

Alex Bradberry

River:

Elwha River, Clallam County, Olympic Peninsula, Washington

1. What do you love about your homewaters?

The Elwha is similar, in looks, to many of the Olympic Peninsula rivers; lush fern gardens, abundant wildlife, and glacial turquoise waters keep us here year-round. But, the Elwha is unique in that she is the only coastal river on the OP that has been dammed, and her recovery post-removal is awe-inspiring. Anadromous species that were blocked from their ancestral spawning grounds for nearly 100 years are now seen in her upper reaches; a feat that locals deemed impossible or, at the very least, highly unlikely. Skeptics believed that the fish wouldn't return at all, that removal was a "waste of two good dams" (that no longer provided the power they were built for). Living in Port Angeles, hiking the Elwha consistently, and seeing firsthand the resilience of these fish as they prove us all wrong is an immense privilege.

2. How long have you been a River Steward?

Just a couple of months now, I am new to the program.

3. What does being a River Steward mean to you? Why is it important?

I think it is really important for community members to be involved in their watersheds wherever they may live. As an angler, I spend a lot of time on neighboring river systems (the Elwha has been closed to all fishing since 2011), but the Elwha is the closest to home and the place I go to hike and clear my head most often. I regularly see other people along trails there and know that they're there for the same thing; time in the outdoors is a powerful gift, and preserving these pristine places is a priority for many people and organizations. Since I spend so much time fishing and work in the fishing industry, it's important to me to work with Native Fish Society to ensure strong runs of native fish in the future; the main common goal for those involved in getting the dams removed to begin with. It is impossible for conservation to begin at a national or international level. The people who live near these resources are the most important stronghold for protecting them, and since I live about 15 minutes from the Elwha, I feel a strong sense of responsibility to advocate in any way I can.

4. What are you working on in your homewaters?

The main challenges the Elwha watershed faces come with the hatcheries built on her banks. It's a very complicated issue between state run agencies, federal regulations, and tribal interests. My hope for my time with Native Fish Society is to get these groups to collaborate with the community in a way that is more beneficial to the overall health of the salmonid species in the river, rather than the focus being solely on economic interests around the harvest of hatchery fish.

5. Are there any successes or challenges that you would like to share?

There are widespread threats to most cold water fisheries right now centered around the effects of global climate change. That said, low snow and rain levels throughout our 2019 winter season means dangerously low flow rates and higher water temperatures for the summer months. Because of the low water, fish were forced to spawn in the main stems of our OP rivers, rather than their typical side channels and tributaries. This jeopardizes the success of their spawning, as main stems are narrower now than they were then, and any successful spawning that may have occurred are in a precarious position for fry survival. The easiest way for people to combat this on a smaller scale is by being mindful of the fishing seasons and regulations, as well as what to look for in the rivers while they're fishing or hiking. This time of year, Olympic National Park brings in boatloads (literally) of tourists. Many want to fish for salmon or steelhead and have done no prior research; they don't know when the runs begin or end, and they don't necessarily know the difference between a hatchery fish and a wild fish. Educating yourself is a huge way to protect these resources, and here are a few good things to always keep in mind:

  • learn more about salmon and steelhead redds (nests for spawning) and what they look like; avoid fishing over them and especially avoid walking through/trampling them
  • always read local regulations and never fish closed waters
  • always retain hatchery fish (keeping local limits in mind); the mindset of catch and release fishing for hatchery fish is flawed
  • release native fish quickly and keep them wet for the entirety of your handling them
  • fish single, barbless hooks for easier release and less damage to the fish
  • use rubber nets, not knotted
6. What do you hope for the future of this watershed? What do you want your community to know?

I hope that our local community can become more supportive of the dam removal as a whole. Many people, anglers and non-anglers included, feel a tremendous sense of loss in the absence of Lake Mills and Lake Aldwell (the two reservoirs that were drained when the dams were removed). Overall, there is some support and optimism among us for what the future of the river may bring, but it could definitely be improved. A healthy watershed with strong runs of anadromous fish is so much more valuable to the community than those two reservoirs ever could have been in their final state. Biodiversity is slowly returning to the watershed as salmon carcasses find their way back into the upper forest; unlikely food sources for raccoons, bears, songbirds and even deer. Slowly, but surely, the Elwha is re-staking her claim on the peninsula. I want our community to celebrate that rather than feeling they've been robbed.

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River Stewards Hatcheries Conservation hydropower Steelhead Science W4WF

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