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SOURCE: The Seattle Times
DATE: January 1, 2021
SNIP: They are as Seattle as the Space Needle. But Lake Washington sockeye, once the largest run of sockeye in the Lower 48, are failing.

The smallest run on record returned to the Cedar River in 2020, a bottoming out after years of declines. There hasn’t been a fishery on Lake Washington sockeye since 2006 — and now extinction looms.

What’s worse is scientists are not even sure how to fix it, as a vortex of climate change, urbanization and predators endangers a beloved species.

Some 22,950 sockeye were counted at Ballard’s Hiram Chittenden Locks in 2020, but only about 3,000 made it to the mouth of the Cedar. Another 40 to 50% of those fish typically die on the spawning grounds before they can reproduce.

Not even a $31 million hatchery project by Seattle Public Utilities — built in 2011 to replace a failing interim hatchery — has delivered the rescue expected.

It’s not only Seattle’s storied summer sockeye run that is at risk. Lake Sammamish kokanee are on life support, circling in a tank in a captive brood on Orcas Island. Local steelhead are goners. The watershed’s chinook run is at 10% of historic levels. The sockeye are the standout example of a more worrisome decline in what once were 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 sockeye, all of the salmon are significant to us, we don’t want them only for ourselves, we want them for everyone to enjoy. We are salmon people. It is our way of life.”

Paul Faulds, water planning and program management interim director at Seattle Public Utilities, has staked his career on Lake Washington sockeye, investing 20 years in the sockeye program at SPU.

The utility is in the middle of the Lake Washington 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 to two-thirds of SPU’s 1.4 million customers in the greater Seattle area.

A portion of the returning sockeye run is collected from the Cedar and taken to a hatchery each year to artificially spawn a new generation — but the fish are not allowed above the dam.

Incredible as it seems now, the utility would never allow sockeye above its dam because managers were worried the fish would spawn in such high numbers, they could pollute the drinking water supply.

“I am continually blown away, thinking that was really a concern,” Faulds said.

Today the worry is that the fish can’t beat the combination of climate change that is warming the water in the lake and Lake Washington Ship Canal to lethal temperatures; urbanization of the lake; and surging predator populations gobbling juvenile salmon. The threats intertwine.

But what is happening to the adult sockeye, such that so many never even make it to the Cedar River — where even more then die?

Scientists don’t really know, but posit a combination of warm water, stress and disease is the cause.

Meanwhile, SPU has already run through most of its $31 million fund to operate the sockeye hatchery. The fund was supposed to keep it going until 2050 — but there is only about $4 million left, Faulds said.

Jim Scott, special assistant to the director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, grew up on the shores of Lake Washington, in Renton, playing around the lake as a kid, and fishing for sockeye from a rowboat. “It is part of me, I would say, and my family.”

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

That commitment to making things better makes it all the harder to see the present turning point toward worse. “It is this change in the landscape that is making it more and more difficult for salmon to persist,” Scott said.

Shouldn’t we all wake up here? These fish are disappearing before our eyes, shouldn’t people be concerned about this?” said Larry Phillips, a champion of salmon when he was on the Metropolitan King County Council. In deepest blue Seattle, with one of the greenest city councils and county governments in the nation, he can’t believe it has come to this for the city’s signature fish.