CEDAR RIVER — After migrating as far as the Bering Sea, this freshwater highway flowing southeast of Seattle calls you, an adult sockeye salmon, home.
Suddenly you hit a wall — the Ballard Locks. The salinity drops, the water heats up and your oxygen supply is strained. You escape the grasp of dozens of hungry seals and sea lions. As you fight through the fish ladder, hundreds of humans watch in awe through glass panels.
Just beyond the windows, framing the spectacular, beloved scene, the lake where you’re supposed to spend the next few months of your life before heading upriver is warm and riddled with pathogens.
Half or more of your sockeye cohort may not make it to the spawning grounds. Your dwindling runs haven’t supported a fishery since 2006.
But the past three years, not all of the sockeye that made it to the Cedar had to pass through the lake. Hundreds are being trucked about 40 miles around the lake to a hatchery in a last-ditch effort to keep the run alive. And parts of the process are being replicated across the state as salmon face habitat lost to hydropower, farmland irrigation and other development. Climate change lays on an additional layer of challenges for the state’s salmon.
Fisheries staff for the state and tribal co-managers scoop up the sockeye from the fish ladder, place them in a tank on a boat, and into a larger tank on a truck that transports them to cool, round ponds at the hatchery. The hatchery itself, a more than $30 million project by Seattle Public Utilities, hasn’t been enough to recover the signature Lake Washington Sockeye.
A few months later, hatchery specialists will pluck the fish out of the pond — feeling their unset Jell-O belly to confirm they’re ready to spawn — and deliver a fatal blow to their heads with a Louisville Slugger before slicing them open and pouring their eggs, and a male’s milt, into a bowl.
The fish that do pass through the Locks face high water temperatures and disease that’s estimated to kill about half of the sockeye returning to Lake Washington — and another 30% to 50% of the fish die of disease before spawning in the river, according to Seattle Public Utilities.
Aaron Bosworth, fisheries biologist for the state department of Fish and Wildlife, recalled the early planning for the pilot trucking program.
“And we started thinking about what if we tried this thing,” Bosworth said, “where we caught them down into Locks and brought them up there. And it seems to be working.”
The Muckleshoot Tribe and state fisheries managers grew the number of trucked fish from more than 250 in 2021 to more than 900 in 2022 and more than 1,600 in 2023. On average, about 2% of trucked fish that were transported to ponds full of ground water died before spawning, and less than 10% of fish reared on river water in the ponds died before spawning.
The co-managers are now wrapping up what they deem a successful pilot program and are drawing up plans to truck thousands more fish in future years. The hope is to rescue the fish from the brink of extinction and restore the urban sockeye fishery.
A complex past
The Cedar, the largest tributary to Lake Washington, originates from the Cascades. It’s seen a world of growth and change, as have the salmon.
Just over a century ago, the river emptied into the Black River, a tributary of the Duwamish. But Renton officials rerouted the Cedar north, where it would eventually spill into Lake Washington as engineers lowered the lake’s levels to align with Lake Union.
So the Black River dried up.
While biologists believe a small native sockeye run returned to the Cedar historically, it was functionally extinct by the construction of the Ballard Locks, which connected the waters of Lake Washington, Lake Union and Salmon Bay to the tidal waters of Puget Sound, allowing recreational and commercial vessels to travel to the docks and warehouses of Seattle’s harbor.
Then began an effort to transplant recently hatched sockeye from the Baker River, a tributary of the mighty Skagit, into Lake Washington’s tributaries.
The Baker River descendants would over the next decades grow into one of the largest sockeye runs in the contiguous 48. The fishery brought together generations of Seattleites, Indigenous people and newcomers.
Lake Washington sockeye were the first fishery the Muckleshoot Tribe went out for after the 1974 decision of U.S. District Judge George Boldt affirming treaty tribes’ right to half the catch.
Muckleshoot Vice Chairman Donny Stevenson was on the last Lake Washington sockeye fishery in 2006.
“That fishery takes on almost like a feeling of a holiday — everybody is out, there’s a sense of community, a sense of celebration, there’s smiles on everybody’s faces,” he said. “The best way I can kind of describe it is like, when you’re a kid and you’re waiting on Christmas Eve for Christmas morning, as all the fishermen are preparing to go out on that run, that is the type of electricity that’s in the air.”
Then the runs came crashing down.
From 1992 to 2006, on average about 231,601 sockeye were counted passing through the Locks each year. But from 2007 to 2023, that average plummeted to less than 64,000.
What was thought to be a pivotal moment in supporting the sockeye was the completion of a state-of-the-art mitigation sockeye hatchery by Seattle Public Utilities in 2011, said Paul Faulds, water resources manager for the city.
The utility is in the middle of the sockeye rescue because of Seattle’s Landsburg Diversion Dam built in 1901 on the Cedar, to which the sockeye return. The Cedar provides drinking water for two-thirds of the over 1.5 million customers in the region, Faulds said.
The hatchery helped generate an “air of optimism,” and many believed it would contribute to the increase of the Cedar River sockeye population, he said.
“But then we started getting this problem where the fish that we caught here were kind of sick after being in the lake,” Bosworth said.
During the 2021 heat dome, storied sockeye lay dead along the Locks, hit with lethal water temperatures. At times, they were warm to the touch, said Mike Mahovlich, of Muckleshoot’s fisheries department.
From 2009 to 2019, the ship canal consistently blew past sublethal temps and occasionally reached the lethal threshold during the Pacific salmon migration period.
The fish were going extinct, said Mahovlich, of Muckleshoot’s fisheries. Every year, fisheries managers were bracing for the possibility.
Hope for the future
Now the co-managers are thinking their investments should all be channeled toward a larger trucking program, with no possibility in the foreseeable future for improvements to the Lake Washington water issues or deadly temperatures.
With the success of the last three years, the co-managers are now looking into all the avenues to grow the program from four ponds for trucked fish to 50 ponds, to build the run back to sustainable or harvestable levels as fast as possible so the tribes and sport fishers can get back on the water.
To the co-managers, and community, the rescue effort is personal.
Frank Urabeck, a lifelong Seattleite and sport fisherman, has long advocated for these experimental efforts to save the sockeye. He fought for the construction of SPU’s hatchery. He advocated for the trucking experiment. Now he’s advocating for a future with sockeye for his grandkids.
“How many years I got left — I don’t know,” Urabeck said. “But if we can leave this as a legacy, as part of the Seattle scene, gosh, to me, that would be great.”
After years of conservation closures of the fishery, the smallest run on record returned to the Cedar River in 2020.
About 24,000 sockeye were counted at the Locks this year, but only about 8,000 made it to the mouth of the Cedar.
“Muckleshoot is working and trying to ensure the future of the run, to make sure that we don’t have to someday bring our children to the library and point out this species in a book because there aren’t there aren’t any left in the wild,” said Stevenson, the vice chairman of the tribe. “I think this program is a great real-world application and metaphor for our level of commitment.”
Fish don’t wait for money, said Mahovlich, of the fisheries department.
“We’ve already lost an iconic species there already: the steelhead,” he said. “Nobody wants to lose another incredible species, a unique run in a metropolitan area, a unique fishery, both tribal and sport. There’s nowhere else in the world that happens. Why let it go?”