It’s Salmon Watching Season!

This weekend my family and I visited the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, or “The Ballard Locks” as we locals usually say. This bustling tourist attraction is celebrating its centennial and has truly shaped the city of Seattle and the surrounding area into what it is today.


The locks allow boats to travel between salty Puget Sound and freshwater Lake Union and vice versa. These two bodies of water are not at the same elevation so the locks act as a “water elevator,” lifting the boats up or down depending upon which direction they are headed. The locks include a fish ladder which is now the only pathway for salmon to reach Lake Washington and their natal streams. Windows allow visitors to watch the salmon make their transition from salt to freshwater. Every salmon returning to the Washington/Cedar/Sammamish watershed must pass these windows in order to spawn.

Salmon Naturalist in Red Hat. Seattle Aquarium

When I visited the locks this past weekend volunteers for the Cedar River Salmon Journey were there to answer questions. And I had a lot of them. After all, these salmon are responsible for providing the next generation of baby salmon who will grow up to be food for the endangered Southern Resident killer whales.  Plus, they are headed to spawn within the watershed where I live — so I, too, hold a responsibility towards ensuring they have a healthy place to lay their eggs, and for their fry to grow up.

“How many salmon have already passed the locks?”

The salmon naturalist showed me the latest numbers of Sockeye salmon that have passed the locks compared to the projected numbers. 77,292 were forecasted, and as of July 30th, 129,124 were counted — far exceeding their projections. “Why?”  The answer to that is not clear, and the naturalist explained a litany of factors that could contribute.

“What about Chinook?”

While runs of Sockeye were winding down, Chinook were just ramping up. Looking over the side from the above walkways many salmon could be seen dodging away from a harbor seal. I became very excited to see wild Chinook.  At the time, 775 Chinook were seen and 4,670 were forecasted.

“Are these wild or hatchery fish?”

The majority of all salmon seen at the locks are hatchery fish. The naturalist explained how the adipose fin (small fin on the back of salmon near the tail, which apparently isn’t used for anything) is clipped on hatchery fish allowing fishermen and all of us an easy way to identify them. To date, 44% of the Chinook that passed the locks were wild. A grand total of 948 were forecasted for 2017.

The Muckleshoot Indian Tribe and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife staffs conduct the counts cooperatively. You can follow along with their counts here.

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

“What was this area like before the locks went in and how have salmon been affected?”

That question took the veteran salmon naturalist by surprise. So knowledgable about the current idiosynchaeies of our salmon and yet stepping back in time and in geographic scale was a challenge, and she admitted she wasn’t clear on what the normal, natural ecosystem was like prior to the construction of the locks. It illustrated to me a perfect example of a shifting baseline. The answer to my question? Humans drastically altered salmon habitat and migration routes with what is essentially a dam in Western Washington.

Back 100 years ago during the construction of the locks the area between Seattle, Kenmore, and Renton was quite literally “re-plumbed” for navigation and flood control (sound familiar?).  Lake Washington was lowered nearly nine feet, drying up 1,000 acres of wetlands, the Black River, and completely disconnecting the Cedar River salmon run. The Cedar River was reconnected to the south end of Lake Washington, along with a hatchery-introduced Sockeye run (Sockeye do well in lakes compared to Chinook).

Before the locks, salmon came in through the Duwamish River, entering Lake Washington at the south end, or bypassing the lake completely and entering the Cedar River. Now, salmon must enter through the locks around the middle of the lake. Cedar River salmon are forced to swim through Lake Washington, something the salmon naturalist explained Chinook aren’t particularly fond of, but Sockeye tend to thrive in lake environments.

Wikipedia (Note: It is likely that this map is incorrectly labeled as “1902”.)

Pathway for Sammamish River salmon in pink.

The design of the locks did account for salmon migration — something celebrated by seemingly all of the salmon naturalists and Army Corps of Engineers interpreters. For comparison, the Elwha dam began construction just six years prior to the locks without any design for fish passage.

It’s incredible, humbling, and disturbing standing at a window watching salmon pop out of a square cement chute on their great salmon journey. Quickly you can tell the difference between Sockeye and Chinook. Hatchery versus wild. A huge, wild Chinook waved its body in the back, coming into view here and there. “That’s one of the rare ones,” a salmon naturalist beamed. I imagine a killer whale’s jaws holding that fish. But this one is safe from ocean predators now. I hold my 17-month-old daughter on the metal rail, excitedly pointing, saying, and signing, “Fish, fish! Here comes another one!” The glass windows provide a stunning view, but I can’t help but feel this isn’t the lens through which I’d like her to view our salmon.

It’s important to see what we are trying to protect. Seeing these salmon brings new questions to light, and helps one understand a very complicated ocean/freshwater journey which these fish endure. Witnessing their resilience in the face of heavy-handed human engineering is inspiring. They are still limping back. We still have work to do.

What was supposed to be a center for industry in Lake Union and Lake Washington is now more like the center for high-end real estate. The locks provide easy access to the ocean and convenient yacht moorage in front yard freshwater docks. The vast majority of vessels using these, the busiest locks in the country, are recreational and don’t pay a fee. The Army Corps of Engineers continues to study and make improvements for salmon. In the 1970’s the salmon ladder was improved and in recent years, new smolt flumes help out-migrating salmon get to the ocean.

Over the next few months there will be many opportunities to watch salmon in their natural and not so natural habitats in the Seattle and Puget Sound region. If you live here, or if you truly care about watching whales, I encourage you to watch salmon, too. Check out the following links to learn where and when to go, and be sure to join us at our Whale Scout Helpin’ Out events this fall, as we work to restore the habitat for these salmon and those in other watersheds who will help feed endangered orcas. Save the date for October 12th at Maury Island Marine Park! Email to be on our mailing list.

Whitney Neugebauer, Director

Cedar River Salmon Journey.

Salmon SEEson

How you can help salmon.