Shallow sockeye numbers may hint at light salmon return

August 20, 2014

By Peter Clark

New: Aug. 20, 10:53 a.m.

Let the salmon run begin.
While the tenacious fish have yet to crest the Ballard Locks on the way to their spawning ground – and the hatchery — the 2014 salmon run is underway. Many species have already made their way through the Ballard Locks this summer. Sadly, at least for sockeye salmon, the number through the fish ladder has dipped very low.
“Unfortunately, we aren’t getting the number we had hoped for in this sockeye run,” said Dani Kendall, program assistant to the Cedar River Salmon Journey at the Ballard Locks.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife predicted 167,000 sockeye, typically the first species to return, would make their way in from the Pacific as instincts draw them home to spawn. Kendall said so far, only 50,000 have come through the Ballard Locks.
“The run got off to a late start,” she said. “In mid-July, there was an average of 2,000 a week coming through the locks, then it just tapered off. It’s unfortunate, considering the high projection.”
As for why the prediction fell so short of the mark, Kendall said the figurative jury was still out.
“I wish I had an answer, but I don’t,” she said.
Jane Kuechle, executive director at the Friends of the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery, said the chinook numbers are low as well and will also arrive late. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife forecasted 4,703 of the species will show up at hatcheries this years. So far, that’s not the case.
“For the last two years, they have began arrive at in the last week of August,” Kuechle said. “But they’ve been slow coming in the Ballard Locks.”
She said she did not know what hampered the salmon in coming back to their home waters, but said it might have to do with warming ocean waters driving the fish into inland passes, where more predators hunt.
Should this salmon run prove light, Kendall said one additional possible cause could be an old concern.
“It’s all about storm water run off,” she said. “That is a large problem, especially in our watershed.”
A large storm can sweep salmon eggs out of streams before they hatch. Since the fish typically live three to four years before they come back to spawn, there can be a lag between the cause and the effect.
To expand conservation efforts, Kendall said the public presentation at the Ballard Locks and at hatcheries like Issaquah’s worked very well to educate the public.
“It’s great to show people the full journey the salmon make,” she said. “You really get a great understanding of what’s right in your back yard.
Even if the fish made their way through the locks in time, Kuechle said the Issaquah Creek would currently keep the fish at bay.
“The creek is also very, very low and they need cold water before they head up the creek,” she said. “So they may hang out in Lake Sammamish for a while.”
Larry Franks, a master docent and member of the Friends of the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery board said the local hatchery will not see all the fish that come through the Ballard Locks.
“Bear in mind that these are totals for the Lake Washington basin, including the Cedar River, so not all of these numbers are expected to show up at the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery,” he said, estimating around 50 to 80 percent of the salmon end up in Issaquah. “One of the challenges here is, you’ve got all of your data coming up with the prediction, but you have a lot of factors you just don’t have control over.”
Franks said the hatchery will most certainly reach its state-mandated chinook egg quota, which will require 900 pairs of fish. Still, the numbers could look better.
“It will be an OK run, but not an outstanding run,” he said.
Officials will continue counting salmon at the locks through Aug. 6. In the meanwhile, Kuechle invites everyone interested to join the first open volunteer meeting with Friends of the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery Aug. 23.
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