Seattle’s the only city in the Lower 48 where lots of salmon run right through the teeth of the urban environment. But this summer the tour guides have had to work to come up with a fish story.

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Out at the Ballard Locks these days, the tour guides are forced to tell some tall fish tales.

“The king salmon are called ‘the king’ because they can get this big,” a tour operator tells a crowd, stretching his arms out wide. “They’re so big they sometimes completely fill up these windows.”

We are standing in front of the famed fish ladder windows. The problem is they are completely empty. In half an hour, two tours come and go without seeing a single fish.

“Maybe Herschel is back,” one guide jokes, before launching into a colorful retelling of Seattle’s steelhead-gorging sea lion who was shipped to California only to swim back in four days flat. (The guide leaves out the no-longer-politically-correct ending — that the sea lions eventually were carted off to Sea World in Florida.)

No, Herschel isn’t back. But this year, neither are many fish. This summer has been another in a string of disappointments in Seattle’s great eco-balancing act: Can we grow into a gleaming city of wealth and skyscrapers, while sustaining a major salmon run right through our middle?

“This year turned into one of our historic lows,” says Bill Robinson, 66, a salmon advocate who fly-caught his first fish in Seattle at age 6. He serves on a committee overseeing the health of the entire Cedar River-Lake Washington system.

Only 33,400 sockeye salmon came through the locks this summer — the second lowest total recorded since they started counting in 1972. What’s vexing is that 164,000 were expected. So somewhere along the line — river, lake, locks or ocean — something went very wrong.

The chinook or king salmon run, which is peaking right now through the Locks, is running only about half its ten-year average. The coho run is just beginning.

For the sockeye, it’s a near-decade malaise. The last time the silver and green fish poured through the Locks in large enough numbers to trigger a fishing season was in 2006.

“The short answer is, we don’t really know what’s not working,” Robinson says. “Millions and millions of dollars have gone into upgrading the sockeye fishery over the last 20 years. It’s disheartening. This is an icon of Seattle, and right now it’s under threat.”

The threats are the usual human-caused list of problems, such as urban development and fertilizer and oil in runoff. For two decades the city, county, tribes and a host of environmental and fishing groups have worked to preserve Cedar River habitat, open a portion of the river above the city’s water outtake dam to spawning fish and build a new hatchery on the Cedar.

But something’s off-track anyway. It might be the heat. Typically in July and August the surface-water temperature of Lake Washington is about 69 degrees. This summer it has been measured as high as 76, seven degrees hotter than normal. Hot water can be a thermal barrier to migration — the fish sense the heat and just won’t swim into it.

Still, just when you think a run is dying, it can mysteriously boom. In 1995 only 34,000 fish returned, also one of the smallest runs ever. But the next summer, more than 500,000 rushed the locks. A photo of Seattle made the front page of The New York Times, gunwale to gunwale fishing boats with skyscrapers in the background. So maybe that will happen again.

But Robinson said his worry now, with the string of bad years, is that people are giving up on the salmon. Example: Someone illegally planted a foreign species of fish, walleye, into Lake Washington. Robinson suspects it was fishermen, who cynically figure there’s never going to be another salmon season so why not convert the lake to something else?

“I think a lot of people look at the decline of this run and are starting to feel it’s just one of the costs of Seattle becoming such a big city,” Robinson said. “That we’re going to impact the environment so heavily anyway, maybe we can’t have sockeye here anymore. That’s a feeling we have to fight against.”

The talk of Seattle these days is how we’re losing our identity, from supposedly being killed by Amazon to becoming a playground for the rich. We’re too self-absorbed.

While we’re navel-gazing about that, the real soul of the city may be silently ebbing away with only the tour guides to take notice.