“Mommy, I see a fish!”
I was out at the Ballard Locks on a recent morning, and — contrary to the excited little girl — there wasn’t a fish in sight.
Not a real one anyway. The girl, part of a healthy stream of tourists coursing past the locks’ famed underwater salmon-viewing windows, had instead spied the only fish in evidence that morning — one displayed on the facility’s new 15-foot flat-screen video wall.
The screens, installed in June, were placed just above the windows where more than a million visitors a year come to peer into the true beating heart of Seattle — the pulsing migration of hundreds of thousands of salmon.
The video display was put there because tour guides no longer have that much of the real thing to point to.
This summer only 17,064 sockeye were tallied passing through the Locks over two months of counting, the lowest figure ever recorded (the counting started in 1972).
It’s not just lower by a little. The annual average as recently as the decade of the 2000s was 237,000 sockeye through the Locks.
Back in 2006, which is starting to feel like a different epoch, 36,319 sockeye bombarded the fish ladder in a single day.
“So much wildness surging through the city has the feel of a miracle to it,” I wrote about that 2006 run.
Our sockeye run was at one time the biggest in the lower 48 states, and one of the larger urban fish runs in the world. For my money it was Seattle’s greatest tourist attraction — a must-see for out-of-towners, because it was the main thing that makes us different from anywhere else.
Today the video is pretty good.
“I don’t want to pour cold water on everyone who is out there working to save the sockeye, but it’s going downhill so fast it feels like we might be nearing the end,” said Frank Urabeck, a longtime sport-fishing advocate who was dubbed “Mr. Sockeye” because of his ardor for the Lake Washington run.
“Last year the news was concerning, but this year the news is devastating,” the Cedar River Council, an advisory group formed for that river basin, recently wrote to the governor, begging for intervention.
So far neither a new $8 million hatchery nor hundreds of millions of dollars in habitat improvements on the spawning grounds, the Cedar River, have been able to lift it back up.
Pollution, a “blob” of warm ocean water, other fish feasting on salmon fry in the lake, habitat destruction, the general warming of Lake Washington water — all share blame for the demise, biologists have suggested. There hasn’t been a sports-fishing season for sockeye in 13 years.
Sockeye were first planted in the river in the 1930s, so the run is not eligible for federal protections. Each year Seattle also sees small runs of chinook and coho salmon swim through the Locks. Many of those are hatchery fish, while the wild run of chinook has been on the Endangered Species list since 1999.
Urabeck notes that the return of 17,000 sockeye this year is a lot worse than it sounds. Last year, nearly twice that number, 32,100, were counted at the Locks. But mysteriously only about a quarter made it to the river to spawn. That means that after traveling hundreds if not thousands of ocean miles, three-quarters of the fish that went through the Locks somehow died in the Ship Canal or Lake Washington, right on the doorstep of their reproductive goal.
“This year we could be left with just a few thousand spawners in the river,” Urabeck said. “So we’re down to a token. You get to populations that low and it’s hard to sustain itself.”
If there was something you all could do, a number to call or a donation to make, I’d give it to you. But Seattle’s totemic fish runs have already received sustained attention and hundreds of millions in aid. If there’s a way to save them now, there’s no agreement what that might be.
What’s ebbing away is more than a planted fish run. As recently as the 2000s, up to 200,000 sockeye spawned here naturally, meaning they swam through the teeth of the city to dig nests in the gravel of a local river. I saw it, out east of Renton, the reddening fish surging upstream bank to bank like blood cells in an artery. I thought then: How far gone could we be, if wild salmon could still thrive here?
Today the video displays, just by their presence, say the opposite. Seattle’s on the verge of being a museum of its former self.