Forage fish of the Elwha and Dungeness nearshore: world class restoration and protection in the upper left hand corner of the United States.

Following complete removal of the last dam from the Elwha River it appears that the nearshore food webs have begun to repair themselves.  During a recent lower river and estuary seining, the Coastal Watershed Institute (CWI) documented, for the first time, hundreds of gravid and spent eulachon Thaleichthys pacificus- a federally listed river spawning smelt (watch a video of the field observation here).

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The eulachon’s common name “candlefish” derives from the fact that they are so rich in oil that, when caught, dried, and strung on a wick, they can be burned like a candle!  Eulachon have historically been a culturally important species to indigenous cultures. Eulachon also provide such a significant energy source to the entire aquatic food web that they are federally protected.  Eulachon spawn at the most upstream extent of tidal influence in a river and require fine sediments to successfully reproduce.  Because the Elwha River dams altered sediment delivery to the lower river, eulachon and have been nearly absent from the Elwha system for the past six decades.  Now that dam removal has re-established natural river sediment processes, we are thrilled to know that eulachon are returning to this restored habitat so quickly and in such abundance.  The dozens of seals, sea lions, and thousands of birds are even happier!


In January 2015 Coastal Watershed Institute also observed the first ever Long fin  smelt, Spirinchus thaleichthys, in the Elwha nearshIMG_20150112_110221 copyore. Long fin are also river spawning smelt. This was a gravid female.

The term ‘forage fish’ refers to a  group of pelagic schooling fish (including eulachon, surf smelt, long fin smelt, sand lance, and herring) that are a critical food source for larger fish, birds  and marine mammals including Chinook salmon, bull trout, alcids, gulls, and seals, sea lions, and whales. Eulachon and longfin smelt   spawn on fine grain sand in lower rivers thru winter and spring. Surf smelt and sand lance spawn in the mid and upper intertidal areas of  very specific grain size  beaches-surf smelt spawn here in summer-sandlance spawn here in winter. Herring spawn on eelgrass and seaweed during early spring.  In healthy nearshore ecosystems, forage fish and forage fish spawning are prolific, but in far too many coastal areas they are experiencing significant declines.


For example, here on the Olympic Peninsula, forage fish spawning along the Elwha drift cell is a mere fraction compared to other areas, including  the adjacent and intact Dungeness drift cell, where relatively abundant and consistent surf smelt spawn along feeder bluffs is supported by  complex seasonal bluff feed rates and volumes of specific grain size sediment. In the Elwha nearshore, dam removal creates an unprecedented opportunity to jump start and restore these vital forage fish communities and the higher predators that depend upon them. And the Elwha drift cell provides a cautionary tale on how important it is to protect intact nearshore systems for forage fish, such as the Dungeness bluffs drift cell.


While spawning is low in the Elwha drift cell, it’s common to seasonally see extremely large schools of adult and juvenile sand lance (Ammodytes hexapterus), surf smelt, and herring (Clupea harengus pallasi) migrating along our shorelines and feeding  in the kelp and eelgrass beds of the Elwha and Dungeness nearshore (see sand lance and herring in our nearshore here: and   video of a recent juvenile herring storm in the Elwha nearshore here: .   It is so important to protect these nearshore habitats critical for these important forage fish species.

In July 2014, Coastal Watershed Institute and a group of young National Geographic Explorers documented that surf smelt (Hypomesus pretiosus pretiosus) expanded their spawning range in the Elwha nearshore and spawned on new beaches that were created as a result of dam removal. You can read about our July sampling here.  We continue to sample for new spawning areas for surf smelt and sand lance and other forage fish as they arrive. Stay tuned.

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Ongoing field efforts to chronicle these unique ecological changes in the nearshore central Strait including the Elwha, Dungeness drift cells take many hands and ongoing funding.   WDFW, WCC, DNR, UW, UVic, Salish Sea biological and our Peninsula College/WWU and other student interns and die-hard photographer partners are essential. A big thank you goes out to all of you for heavy lifting under all weather conditions!  Funding for this work is provided by Olympic Peninsula Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, University of Washington, University of Victoria, Patagonia, Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, Rose Foundation, Seattle Foundation/Hayes Family Foundation and private donations. Join us.

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High Feeder Bluffs: What they mean to you, and how to understand natural processes to inform a community ‘Living on the Edge’

The views are as magical as they are temporary atop the Dungeness Bluffs-which form the backbone of Dungeness Spit.  Dungeness Bluffs, Spit, and Bay are fragile, unique, and tightly  interdependent landforms that are ecologically and economically important to our region.


These high bank bluffs began forming and retreating as sea level rose and glaciers receded from the Olympic Peninsula, leaving behind a 100-300 foot thick legacy of highly erodible nearshore and beach building clay, sand, gravel and cobble deposits along the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

bluff  slip

These features are ‘feeder bluffs’-through natural erosion they are the sediment source for our nearshore including beaches, offshore substrate, and spits-including Dungeness Spit-a nationally treasured federal wildlife refuge. Natural erosion of these bluffs is a constant process of wind, waves and rainfall that results in the retreat of the Dungeness Bluffs  at a (highly variable) average rate of 1.5 feet per year.  This rate is a long-term average and individual bluff failure events have included erosion of as much as 20 feet in a single event.

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Residential development began along these 30-story high vistas in the 1970s, and continues today. During development, bluff hydrology-metering shoreline vegetation is first to go as trees are cut for views. Then impervious roofs, parking, and lawns are installed.  Water is further concentrated on these parcels by onsite septic systems and insufficient storm water conveyance. Yard waste is often side cast over the bluff edge in an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ philosophy. The result: erosion is exacerbated.   And what seemed (when first built), to be a reasonable distance from the edge, vanishes. Today, more and more of these homes hang within feet of the edge.

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What science tells us/What we know:

1. High bluffs are complex, unique nearshore systems

The feed rate of sediment from feeder bluffs is very complex. Feed volume, rate, and composition, varies by season and year.

2.  These high bluff features are fundamentally erosional-this process is unstoppable.

3.  Their management is also unique. Including:

  •  Foremost, ‘soft techniques’ becoming more familiar in other areas of lower energy regions of Puget Sound are not effective on high feeder bluff shorelines. Specifically,
  • Parcel scale ‘soft armoring techniques’ won’t work on high bluffs. Sediment delivery and wood dynamics are simply too large and complicated to attempt to mimic at a parcel scale. Only restoration of sediment processes at the ecosystem scale may restore and maintain feeder bluff systems.
  • Native vegetation along the top and face of high feeder bluffs plays a very important role in high feeder bluff dynamics-including erosion. Once native vegetation is removed and surface hydrodynamics are altered, erosion will start to accelerate. Once activated, this fundamental shift in the dynamics of the feeder bluff may be difficult to undo.
  • Restoring’ native vegetation is a fine thing to do-but restoring the root systems that pull adequate water, reestablish angle of repose on destabilized bluff faces, and provide a stabilizing net along the bluff edge and face may take decades-and may not be possible at all.

wide bluffs rd

Bottom line?

High feeder bluffs are large scale eroding features. This erosion is inevitable and necessary. Residing upon a large feeder bluff means you are integrated into a potentially hazardous,   large-scale, geologic and hydrologic process. Landowners there will interact with, but cannot control, these processes. The only way to successfully manage these forces on one’s home  is to live elsewhere, and protect these critical features intact.


What to do?

First and foremost: Undeveloped bluff properties should be conserved.

For properties that are developed:

New homes should be sited at least 200 feet back from the top of the bluff edge (providing approximately 100+ years of time until erosion becomes an issue). Erosion rates are too variable and development actions have too much interaction with bluff dynamics to develop closer with any certainty.

Native long lived vegetation provides important bluff edge stabilization that cleared edges and mowed lawns do not. Native vegetation should absolutely not be cleared from the bluff edge and face. Trees should not be topped, and yard waste should absolutely not be side cast onto/over bluff edges.

Careful consideration should be given to storm water and septic systems as additional water storage and runoff often exacerbates bluff erosion. If these cannot be managed to completely avoid increased interaction with the bluff system the site should not be developed.

While often offered as a popular engineering tool, armoring of high bluffs is  expensive and the science is clear: armoring of high bluffs doesn’t stop erosion but instead increases it. Armoring just won’t solve the problem and leads to intractable and additional landowner costs as well as devastating effects to fish and wildlife. Look to the Elwha drift cell to understand that armoring is expensive, does not solve the problem and results in more armoring.

And for those unfortunate landowners that  have built along high bluffs, and are currently at risk? These properties should be removed from the real estate market for both safety and ecological reasons and not sold  to other uninformed landowners.


What can we do? Educate, and work together.

  1. Continued community education on best bluff management practices
  2. Develop and coordinate a relief funding source, process, and plan for acquisition of distressed properties and relocation of homes away from the bluff edge.
  3. Begin protecting intact feeder bluffs-your favorite beach, fish, and marine ecosystem depends on it.

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Additional resources

Link to average erosion rates by parcel along Dungeness and Elwha drift cell:,47.9973,-123.0273,48.2599

The Last Beach;


Thanks to LightHawk for assistance with aerial imagery