The Lake Washington sockeye run is in grave danger of a catastrophic collapse. A combination of factors, including increased urbanization, predation and rising water temperatures have put the treasured sockeye run at real risk of disappearing forever. This is unacceptable and calls for a sustained, regional response.
The Muckleshoot Tribe and the state have invested a great deal of time and resources to protect the Lake Washington fisheries. In 2004, the tribe and city of Seattle reached an agreement to build and operate a hatchery to provide harvestable numbers of sockeye.
While not an answer to all the problems impacting sockeye, the hatchery is the only tool available to provide the immediate action needed to help the survival of this iconic fish. The unfortunate reality is that to-date hatchery operations have not produced the intended results, and the city is facing constraints on its budget to operate and maintain this critical facility.
As co-managers of the fishery resource, the Muckleshoot Tribe and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife have recommended to the city a number of improvements to the hatchery facility and operations regarding water supplies and adult holding conditions, for example, as well as other emergency actions that could be taken to increase survival. Greater flexibility and increased funding are needed in hatchery operations to produce more fish with higher survival rates.
While improved hatchery production is an important immediate step, many larger challenges impacting the Lake Washington ecosystem and sockeye survival need to be addressed. Resolving larger issues such as the negative impacts of water pollution, including lethal water temperatures, and increased predation by other fish and marine mammals will require a long-term, greater regional commitment. Creative interim solutions, including enhancing the survival rates of adult sockeye by transporting them around the Lake Washington Ship Canal, will also be needed to ensure sockeye persist.
Salmon have been a part of tribal culture and a way of life for Native people for thousands of years. How many of us have made trips to see salmon return to Bear Creek or the Cedar River, peering over the edge of the railing at Cedar River Park? What is a trip to the Ballard Locks without the potential to see salmon? Further, Lake Washington salmon are important to endangered southern resident killer whales.
Sockeye fisheries in Lake Washington in years past demonstrated how responsible fisheries management in our urban environment can support both tribal harvest and popular fisheries for sport anglers.
Lake Washington sockeye are now in danger of disappearing altogether. Last year a mere 22,950 sockeye, the smallest run ever, passed through the Ballard Locks, and only a small fraction of those made it to the Cedar River. The last sockeye fishery on Lake Washington was 15 years ago.
It is past time to act and reverse the decline. It is imperative for this region to come together with a strong commitment and the necessary resources to save this critical natural resource. Only the collective action of our governments, communities, businesses, philanthropies, civic organizations and others can save this treasured Northwest icon.
To stand by and watch it disappear is simply not acceptable.