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The Memory of Fish follows the life story of a man from Port Angeles, Washington, and his fight to bring salmon home to the Elwha River. Dick Goin was a Dust Bowl refugee, pulp mill worker, and fisherman-turned-river Yoda, whose memory and persistence were instrumental in the biggest dam removal project in US history. They say rivers are like veins, and Goin had salmon running through his. A master among master fishermen, he was one of the oldest voices speaking against the destruction of the Olympic Peninsula, one of this country’s most exploited natural areas for its timber, fish, and hydroelectricity. As a fisherman, citizen scientist, educator, and historian of this frontier, both tribal leaders and park rangers agree he has no parallel: Dick was here for the fish.
Dick’s love story with the Elwha River began in 1937, as a six-year-old boy running from Iowa with his family in the Dirty Thirties. The Goin family settled on the rugged coast of the Olympic Peninsula where they lived off Elwha salmon. He felt the salmon saved his family and so, his life debt to fish grew. In the 1950s, Dick began keeping detailed fishing journals, which scientists came to rely on for answers and institutional baseline data. Dick’s notebooks became cherished sources of wisdom for how the river changed over time, and how it could be fixed. Some said his journals were worth millions.
Over the decades, Dick watched his river slowly die because of the two dams that blocked the Elwha River, disrupting the salmon’s natural habitat and restricting all but five miles from the coast for the salmon to run. This devastated wild fish populations and restricted other migrating animals and the cycling of nutrients. Clams, birds, otters, bears and elk also paid the price because the salmon were disappearing. The pulp mill where he worked for 40-plus years polluted everything and it was able to do so because it was being powered by the dams’ hydroelectricity. Dick, however, was powered by the memory of fish. He wanted the dams taken down so that the fish could come home. By the early 1980s he became more vocal, using his deep river expertise to stand up to special interests and inspire a groundswell of voices for dam removal. An audio recording of Dick’s legendary 1983 speech bends time and helps visualize his memories, allowing us inside Dick’s mind to re-imagine what the river could be again.
The Elwha River is a fascinating underwater world, once considered a queen of rivers with all five species of Pacific salmon. We learn the salmon’s side of the story too. Like Dick, salmon also have a sense of home. Born in the gravel of a riverbed, as young fry no bigger than your hand or mine, they swim downstream to the river’s mouth and out to the ocean. If they can survive coming of age in the big blue, when the time is right, they swim thousands of miles back to the river where they were born to spawn.
It was a long fight between the communities, the park service, and the federal government to
get the dams down – the project start date was repeatedly delayed since 1994 – a long time to stay hopeful. In 2011, the dam removal began; the final chunks were removed in late 2014. This is the largest dam removal project in US history, costing $325 million dollars, and the second largest federal restoration project after the Everglades. Never before has a river and its inhabitants experienced an emancipation of this magnitude. Witnessing this historical event was the story of Dick’s lifetime. For the first time in a century, wild salmon are now swimming in a free flowing Elwha River.
As the Elwha dams were removed, the river became stronger and began remembering its way. However, Dick grew weaker and began losing his memory, as if his mind was unleashed with the river. His clock ticked forward; the river’s ticked back. And as the Elwha flowed free, the salmon remembered their way back to the river to spawn. Like Dick, they too were facing death for the benefit of future generations. Through the eyes and memory of Dick Goin, this is a visual portrait of a local hero, a historic place in the American outdoors, and an iconic wild fish.