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Environmental DNA is an effective tool to track recolonizing migratory fish following large‐scale dam removal

September 19, 2020

Environmental DNA (eDNA) has emerged as a potentially powerful tool for use in conservation and resource management, including for tracking the recolonization dynamics of fish populations. We used eDNA to assess the effectiveness of dam removal to restore fish passage on the Elwha River in Washington State (USA). Using a suite of 11 species‐specific eDNA polymerase chain reaction (PCR) assays, we showed that most targeted anadromous species (five Pacific Salmon species and Pacific Lamprey) were able to pass upstream of both former dam sites. Multiscale occupancy modeling showed that the timing and spatial extent of recolonization differed among species during the four years of post‐dam removal monitoring. More abundant species like Chinook Salmon and Coho Salmon migrated farther into the upper portions of the watershed than less abundant species like Pink Salmon and Chum Salmon. Sampling also allowed assessment of potamodromous fish species. Bull Trout and Rainbow Trout, ubiquitous species in the watershed, were detected at all sampling locations. Environmental DNA from Brook Trout, a non‐native species isolated between the dams prior to dam removal, was detected downstream of Elwha dam but rarely upstream of the Glines Canyon Dam suggested that the species has not expanded its range appreciably in the watershed following dam removal. We found that eDNA was an effective tool to assess the response of fish populations to large‐scale dam removal on the Elwha River.