Lake Washington sockeye hit record low, another signature Seattle fish at brink of extinction

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Lake Washington sockeye hit record low, another signature Seattle fish at brink of extinction

You are as Seattle as the Space Needle. But the Lake Washington Sockeye, once the largest sockeye run in the Lower 48, fails.

The smallest run ever recorded returned to the Cedar River in 2020, a low point after years of decline. There has been no fishing on Lake Washington Sockeye since 2006 – and now it is threatened with extinction.

What’s worse is that scientists aren’t even sure how to fix the problem as a vortex of climate change, urbanization, and predators endanger a beloved species.

In 2020, 22,950 bobcats were counted in Ballard’s Hiram Chittenden Locks, but only about 3,000 made it to the mouth of the cedar. Another 40 to 50% of these fish usually die in the spawning grounds before they can reproduce.

Not even a $ 31 million hatchery project by Seattle Public Utilities, built in 2011 to replace a faulty intermediate hatchery, has delivered the expected salvation.

Not only the famous summer sockeye run in Seattle is at risk. Lake Sammamish Kokanee are life sustaining and orbiting in a tank in a captured brood on Orcas Island. Local steelheads are goners. The Chinook run of the watershed is 10% of the historical level. The bobcat is the prime example of a more worrying decline in once abundant salmon runs in Seattle and beyond.

“The salmon can’t speak, and they need someone to speak for them and protect them,” said Jason Elkins, chairman of the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe.

“It’s not just the bobcat, all salmon matter to us. We don’t just want them for ourselves, we want them to be fun for everyone. We are salmon people. It’s our way of life. “

Donny Stevenson, vice chairman of the council, has been with his tribe for 25 years. He’s one of the last generations in Muckleshoot who have moved from growing up in a house without running water to buying a new one.

But the tribe is not ready to replace its old wealth with its new wealth: the abundance of salmon that feed the rivers, the soils, the animals, the land and the spirit of the tribe.

The tribe knows coexistence is possible: their work rebuilding buddy runs at the Keta Creek Hatchery has fueled a fishery for the tribe that also benefits recreational fishermen who push the Green River every fall for a tasty buddy for the smoker to catch.

The pal’s return to the Green River, which empties into the Duwamish, is also a major fall tariff for south-resident orcas, who pop up in Seattle’s urban waters each fall hunting pal and other salmon. But the orcas that visit our waters are also threatened with extinction, partly because they cannot get enough salmon to eat.

“In a generation we have moved from times of abundance to these endangered fish,” said Stevenson. “Our people have been here for thousands of years, hundreds of generations. We found a way to exist in this environment. This is about balance. ”

Paul Faulds, interim director of water planning and program management at Seattle Public Utilities, began his career at the Lake Washington Sockeye and invested 20 years in the SPU’s sockeye program.

The utility is in the middle of saving the sockeye on Lake Washington, as the Landsburg Diversion Dam in Seattle was built in 1901 on the Cedar to which the sockeye return. Cedar supplies drinking water to two-thirds of SPU’s 1.4 million customers in the greater Seattle area.

It is fresh mountain water filtered only by the forests preserved on the flanks of the Cascades in a 90,638 acre watershed that was reserved and protected for public use by the founders of Seattle more than a century ago as the city’s water supply.

Few cities in the country are fortunate enough to have such pure and delicious water supplies as Seattle.

Part of the returning bobcat run is collected from the cedar and brought to a hatchery every year to artificially breed a new generation – but the fish must not lie above the dam.

Incredibly, it now seems, the utility company would never allow bobcats above its dam, as managers feared the fish would spawn in such large numbers that they could pollute the drinking water supply.

“I’m always overwhelmed and think that was really a problem,” said Faulds.

Today there is concern that the fish will not be able to beat the combination of climate change that is heating the waters in the lake and the Lake Washington Ship Canal to deadly temperatures. Urbanization of the lake; and growing predator populations devouring juvenile salmon. The threats are intertwined.

But what happens to the adult bobcat that so many don’t even make it to the Cedar River – where more than die?

Scientists don’t really know, but a combination of warm water, stress, and illness is what causes it.

In the meantime, the SPU has already used most of its $ 31 million fund to run the Sockeye hatchery. The fund should keep it running through 2050 – but there are only about $ 4 million left, Faulds said.

It all turned out to be so much more expensive than expected, from building the hatchery to running it. “We figured the operation would be $ 300,000 a year, and that’s twice that,” Faulds said. For a hatchery where most of the equipment is idle, due to the lack of bobcat eggs as craters.

“We have 130 empty incubators in a huge building,” said Faulds.

Jim Scott, special assistant to the director of the Washington Department for Fish and Wildlife, grew up on the shores of Lake Washington in Renton, played around the lake as a child, and fished for red ruff from a rowboat. “It’s part of me and my family.

“It’s loved,” he said of the sockeye run. “It’s right on the doorstep of Seattle and all of the communities in the region. They had the opportunity for a father like my father who would come home after work, take the family to Lake Washington and, in the good old days, bring out a bobcat for dinner. “

Lake Washington sockeye are a seasonal rite where families watch for the crimson lightning bolt in the Cedar River when the spawners come home in the fall. “Salmon is just part of me, of the water,” said Scott – part of Seattle’s salmon culture, he added.

A generation in this region voted to tax itself to clean up Lake Washington, which used to be a bleak mess. Raw sewage kept swimmers on the beach.

This commitment to do things better makes it all the more difficult to see the current turning point towards worse. “It’s this change in the landscape that makes it increasingly difficult for salmon to survive,” said Scott.

The tribe and department are ready to try just about anything. A leaky pipe carrying cold water from the depths of Lake Washington to the ship’s canal is an idea that is still only on paper.

The tribe and state are teaming up for a trial that will keep sockeye in the hatchery longer to develop a beefier smolt that they hope has a better chance of survival.

But Scott is careful not to sell a rescue. He knows what these salmon are facing.

The cleanup of Lake Washington in the 1960s shows what can be achieved when the public is engaged and supportive. But some wonder if that obligation still exists.

“Shouldn’t we all wake up here? These fish are disappearing before our eyes, shouldn’t people worry about that? Said Larry Phillips, a champion of salmon when he was on the Metropolitan King County Council. In deep blue Seattle, with one of the greenest city councils and district governments in the country, he can’t believe it was added for the city’s typical fish.

Max Prinsen is chairman of the Cedar River Council, which administers the river. He sees a problem of ownership with multiple cities and agencies in the watershed where the red runners must survive. “Everyone wants to distract and point the finger somewhere else,” said Prinsen. “Until we take possession of the problem, we will not solve the problem.

“Sockeye belong to everyone.”

Lynda V. Mapes:
206-464-2515 or [email protected]; on Twitter: @LyndaVMapes. Lynda specializes in reporting on the environment, natural history, and Indian tribes.