Part 6
Chinook Face Final Obstacle At Landsburg Dam Before Reaching ‘Shangri-La’

Landsburg Dam (Bellamy Pailthorp/KPLU)

Landsburg Dam (Bellamy Pailthorp/KPLU)

For more than a hundred years, the aqueduct at Landsburg Park near Maple Valley was the end of the line for salmon in the Cedar River watershed. Built between 1899 and 1901 through a voter initiative to provide water for the city of Seattle after the great Seattle fire, the water system is the envy of municipalities all over the country. Two-thirds of the water supply comes from reservoirs that are surrounded by mountains and pristine lands, many of which were once logged but are now largely untouched by human civilization.

The area above Landsburg Dam is some of the best fish habitat in the region. But like so much infrastructure built at the turn of the century, its construction did not take the needs of fish into account.

“Both in 1901 and again in the 1930s when the dam was built into its present state, we didn’t account for passage for migratory fish,” says Michele Koehler, a senior fish ecologist with Seattle Public Utilities, which operates the Landsburg Dam. Koehler’s work is part of the utility’s Habitat Conservation Plan. The 50-year plan was prepared under the federal Endangered Species Act, which listed Puget Sound chinook and several other species of local salmon as threatened species in 1999.

Fish Face ‘Interrogation’ By Technicians At Pescalator

Until 2003, when a fish ladder was installed by the utility, the waterworks blocked fish passage. Koehler says fall runs of returning salmon would get stuck at the aqueduct crossing below Landsburg Dam and spawn there in large numbers in less than ideal conditions.

Now, the fish ladder allows most species to get past the dam. But first they have to swim through something called the “Pescalator” and face what Koehler calls an “interrogation” by technicians.

(Courtesy of Seattle Public Utilities)

(Courtesy of Seattle Public Utilities)

“We don’t check their passport or anything like that,” Koehler jokes as she stands near the conveyor where fish come through.

The Pescalator is a two-and-a-half-foot-wide spiral that slowly turns, gently carrying fish and water from a holding pond at the top of the fish ladder up onto a sorting table.

Technicians there measure the length of most of the fish as well noting their gender and whether their adipose fin is clipped, which would indicate that they come from a hatchery.

“And then also for chinook salmon, we take a piece of genetic material, a fin clip, so that can be used for DNA analysis and to look and see if these fish are producing offspring or not,” Koehler says.

The data is used to track recovery efforts under the Endangered Species Act.

Impact On Water Quality Not A Problem

Coho and cutthroat trout are also allowed passage above the dam, because the utility has determined their numbers are small enough not to impact water quality. But Koehler says the large numbers of sockeye that arrive at the Landsburg fish ladder could be a problem.

“Sockeye salmon can show up and do something called mass spawning,” Koehler says. “Mass spawning could result in a pulse of nutrients from all the carcasses decaying at once, which could negatively impact the drinking water quality, whereas chinook and coho and other species we put above the dam aren’t likely to be as numerous and they spawn, especially coho, over a much longer span of time. So we’d be less likely to get a pulse of nutrients.”

And even in a great year for salmon returns, Koehler says it’s unlikely that any of the allowed species, especially chinook, would come back in numbers large enough to pollute Seattle’s water.

“We have never come close to impacting the water quality with the number of carcasses that have [shown up] past the dam so far,” she says. “We’d need to be in the thousands and thousands of fish before we reach that point.”

After The Pescalator, A Resting Place, Then ‘Shangri-La’

Most of the sockeye come from a nearby hatchery, which was built in conjunction with the fish ladder. So as part of the habitat conservation plan, the sockeye are held in tanks and taken from the dam back to the hatchery, where their lives begin and end.

The rest of the fish are hand-carried a couple hundred feet in rubber tote bags full of water to a deep pool upstream of the dam. There, they can recover for as long as they like in still water from the trials of the fish ladder and being handled at the Pescalator.

Then they’re free to swim into the remaining 21 miles of habitat on the Cedar River upstream of the dam. The natural barrier at Cedar Falls is the highest point the chinook might reach before they spawn and die.

“In fact, we kind of call the habitat above the dam a Shangri-La,” Koehler says of the Cedar River Municipal Watershed, which is a 90,000-acre drainage owned by the city of Seattle and managed solely for water quality and conservation.

“Especially given that these fish have swum all the way through the very urban Seattle metropolitan area, once they get up here, they might kind of be breathing a sigh of relief,” Koehler says. “Not to personalize it too much, but it’s a different habitat up here. It’s not impacted by deforestation and urbanization, and dikes and levees and things like that.”


The Data Tells A ‘Success Story’

Data collected at the dam as well as surveys of salmon nests in the habitat upstream show the fish ladder is contributing to chinook recovery. Researchers at the University of WashingtonNOAA Fisheries and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife have all collaborated with Seattle Public Utilities to study the dam’s effects. The fish seem to do well once they get past Landsburg Dam.

(Courtesy of Seattle Public Utilities)

(Courtesy of Seattle Public Utilities)

“At first we were asking questions simply about recolonization. How successful are these fish when they move above the dam?” Koehler says. “But by sampling genetics year after year, after year, we started to get what’s called a parentage analysis, which means we can trace the offspring back to parents that we also sampled genetics from.”

The data shows that the fish that spawn above the dam produce offspring that also return to the dam, which Koehler calls “a good success story.”

This year, Koehler says researchers are also contributing to a study looking at the number of offspring produced between hatchery and wild chinook.

“Because we do have some hatchery fish that stray up here to the dam … it’s an easy spot to sample all of these fish and learn what we can about how many offspring each female chinook produces given her size, and her age, and things like that,” she says.

A Hopeful Trend Despite This Year’s Low Count

To an outsider, the fish ladder might seem like a daunting final gauntlet for the fish, says Koehler, even though research shows it’s a pretty safe and effective way to ensure fish passage.

(Courtesy of Seattle Public Utilities)

(Courtesy of Seattle Public Utilities)

“But all salmon have to run the gauntlet,” Koehler says. “I mean, they’re literally swimming upstream, and unfortunately that has become a metaphor for salmon recovery now.”

The year 2014 is shaping up to be a very low year for fish returns on the Cedar River, especially chinook. On the day of my recent visit, none of the mighty fish also known as kings came through; I saw only a handful of sockeye and one shimmering trout move through the Pescalator.

“But we have seen chinook over the last few days, so you know there’s just variability in how they move throughout the river,” Koehler says.

And as of Oct. 18, she says 198 chinook had passed through the fish ladder at Landsburg Dam (25 female and 173 male).

“That’s about in line with what we expected, given that the counts at the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks were low this year,” she says.

Experts say there is always a lot of natural variability in salmon returns. In addition, a flood in January 2011 is thought to have hurt this year’s cohort of spawners. And an accumulation of exceptionally warm water off the West Coast has been pushing many salmon into the colder waters of British Columbia.

“In the past we’ve had as many as nearly 400 chinook salmon. But in the early years after the fish ladder was opened, we really only had 50 t0 75 fish every year,” Koehler says, adding given those numbers, seeing nearly 200 show up at the Pescalator this year is a good sign. And data since 2003 show a slow upward trend that, along with visible habitat restoration, gives her hope.

“I have, first-hand, seen the resiliency of chinook salmon. And they are a mighty, beautiful, amazing creature,” Koehler says. “Despite all the odds, they’re still coming back to the Cedar River year after year, after year.”

Scientists estimate about 10 percent of the Cedar River run typically makes it to spawning ground above the dam. “Give or take,” Koehler says. “And of course we’d like to see that number go higher over time.”

She says a lot can be learned by looking at this run of fish, as it swims from the ocean, through the pollutants of Puget Sound, into the temperature trials of the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks and the Lake Washington Ship Canal, through Lake Washington and finally home to spawn on the Cedar River. She’d like to see more work on connecting habitats that are restored enough to help the fish survive, throughout their lives.

“The fish are only up here in this pristine environment for the end of their lives and beginning of their lives,” she says. “There are so many impacts to the rest of their lives that we need to make sure that we are taking care of their other life stages with our restoration. And we’re doing good work on the Cedar River and the Lake Washington basin, but we have to keep it up.”

Threat Of Climate Change ‘One Of The Hardest Things To Grapple With’

Koehler expects the recovery of endangered species to take a long very long time.

“I mean, I’ll be happy if I see it in my lifetime,” she says. “We’re making steps in the right direction, but really here at the Landsburg Dam we’ve only seen five or six generations of chinook salmon. And think of how long it took the salmon to decline — you know, decades and decades. So we are just embarking on this.”

At the same time, she says there’s the looming threat of climate change, which could very quickly undermine all of those efforts.

“It’s a big deal,” she says. “It’s one of the hardest things to grapple with.”

And there is a lot to consider, from how warmer water and more acidic oceans might be affecting the ocean food web, to the warmer temperatures it can cause in the lakes and rivers where salmon spawn.

“These fish might be subject to a much larger issue than even their specific habitat. And I think we’re starting to understand that but we don’t understand the full complexity of it,” she says. “And in my opinion, we’re not doing enough on that yet, and it’s going to impact resources we care so much about in the Pacific Northwest, like our chinook salmon.”




Part 5
On The Cedar River, Restored Habitat Provides Ideal Spawning Conditions For Returning Chinook

(Bellamy Pailthorp/KPLU)

Cedar River. (Bellamy Pailthorp/KPLU)

About five miles from the clogged freeways, shopping malls and airplane hangars at the south end of Lake Washington, the Cedar River starts winding its way through Maple Valley.

It’s here, along some 30 miles of streambeds, some just a few paces off the highway, where life begins and ends each fall for hundreds of Lake Washington chinook.

The land adjacent to the riverbed is undeveloped. Water flowing at just the right speed and depth over gravel that’s protected by a shady forest makes this habitat ideal for the spawning nests, called redds, that salmon create. A trained eye can spot them in an instant.

(Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife)

(Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife)

‘She Turns On Her Side And Uses Her Tail Like A Fan’

Karl Burton, a fish biologist who keeps track of salmon redds on the Cedar River for Seattle Public Utilities, says you can see the spawning nests by looking for differences in the color of the rocks that females turn over with their tails as they dig them.

“It’s usually a grey or bluish color, as opposed to a green or brown of rocks that are covered in algae,” Burton says. A spawning female also changes the topography of the river as she digs the redds, which are often about 6 feet wide and up to 30 feet long.

“When she moves in, she turns on her side and uses her tail like a fan to beat at the gravel and dig,” Burton says. In this way, the female fish works her way upriver, creating indents and mounds in the riverbed where she lays her eggs while a male fish swims alongside and fertilizes them.

To an untrained eye, an easier way to find spawning fish and their nests is to look for the white tails of the females.

“The tail tissue gets rubbed off on the rocks and by the time she’s done digging the nest, she’s basically removed all the tissue from her tail. And it’s really nothing but the bone structure of the tail and it turns white,” Burton says.

(Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife)

(Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife)

The females remain near their nests, guarding their territory from other spawning females anywhere from four days to a couple of weeks before they die.

And even though they are technically dying as they procreate, using all of their physical resources to produce offspring, their final sacrificial act is also a display of tremendous strength and power.

“The vast majority of their biomass is muscle. They can move rocks that are 6, 7 inches in diameter,” Burton says. “They’ve been in the ocean feeding for years, building up that muscle. So when they enter freshwater, even though they don’t feed, they’ve got muscle and they’ve got fat to live off of while they spawn.”

Changing Colors and Growing ‘Shark-Like Teeth’

Check out this chinook's teeth! (Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife)

Check out the teeth on this chinook! (Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife)

The process of digging the redd as the fish spawn usually takes two to four days. It’s an amazing process to observe, says Burton, who has been tracking chinook for the utility for about 16 years now. Particularly fascinating to him is how quickly their bodies change as they mature and get ready to spawn.

“The fish are changing colors. Their bodies are elongating. They grow these large teeth; they almost look shark-like,” he says. “They also grow a hook on the end of their upper jaw, which is called a kype. And that kind of makes them look even more vicious.”

But as a fish biologist, Burton says he finds the whole process “absolutely beautiful.”

“I never stop getting excited about looking at spawning fish,” he says. “They keep me alive and they keep me motivated.”

Fighting Against The Odds

The spawning males use their fang-like teeth while chasing each other and competing for females. The females use them to guard their redds against other females, who are also looking for ideal places to spawn.

This transformation begins when they enter freshwater at the Hiram S. Chittenden Locks and takes place “in a matter of weeks,” Burton says.

“Once they get in the rivers is really where the biggest morphological changes occur,” he says.

And all the while, an average female lays about 4,500 eggs in each redd. How many fish ultimately emerge depends on incubation conditions, Burton says, but it’s generally just a few hundred. Predators, disease, bacteria and siltation that cause problems with oxygenation all play a role.

Flood danger is also a big concern. Water that flows too quickly can wipe out developing juveniles. Low flows also pose a threat, which is part of why Burton tracks the redds. His maps and measurements help ensure that the city of Seattle doesn’t take too much when it pulls drinking water from the watershed. About two-thirds of Seattle’s drinking water comes from the Cedar.

Despite A Low Year, An Optimistic Outlook

This year is a down year for Cedar River salmon in general. Initial counts at the locks indicate it’s shaping up to be the second or third lowest year for Lake Washington chinook since counting began in 1995. Burton thinks one big reason for that is a flood that occurred in January 2011. He says returning salmon are usually predominantly 4 years old, and the flood likely wiped out many of what would’ve been this year’s fish before they hatched.

(Bellamy Pailthorp/KPLU)

Cedar River. (Bellamy Pailthorp/KPLU)

“I think that had a major impact on that cohort of fish,” he says. “They were in the gravel when that flood occurred and I’m sure there was a very high mortality rate due to the high velocities.”

But Burton is generally optimistic about the efforts he’s a part of and the effects of conservation work dictated by the federal listing of chinook as a threatened species 15 years ago.

“It’s very difficult to link specific efforts to recover fish to an increase in abundance … Salmon abundance naturally is very dynamic,” he says. “But in terms of the chinook salmon, I think there is evidence that we’ve had some improvement. If you look at the last 10 years, we’ve had two years where the chinook salmon has exceeded the escapement goal.”

Escapement goals are the survival rates set by the co-managers of recovery efforts, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe.

“And the last time we exceeded the escapement goal was in the 1970s,” Burton says.

Habitat Improvement Helping Salmon’s Long Recovery

This year, they’re seeing a very favorable response to a habitat restoration project on a part of the river known as Rainbow Bend, where King County and Seattle Public Utilities bought property and removed levies to open up 40 acres of flood plains. This provides a more flexible shoreline and allows the fish access to side channels when flows get too high for them. Burton says the work is very important.


Rainbow Bend. (Bellamy Pailthorp/KPLU)

“One of the major problems in this river in terms of survival is its disconnection from the flood plain,” Burton says. The large rock walls and levies that humans have installed to keep the Cedar from migrating also cut vulnerable juvenile fish off from places of refuge in side channels where they can find slower water velocities.

“When you put in levies, you’re basically cutting off the river’s ability to produce those types of environments and habitat. So the extent that we can remove those levies, it will definitely provide benefits for juvenile chinook,” Burton says.

And he says the surveys his team has completed in recent weeks document there are already eight chinook redds in a new side channel at Rainbow Bend.

“That’s almost 10 percent of the redds in the river at this point, so obviously, they must like something about the spawning habitat in that area,” Burton says.

Buruton thinks continued habitat improvement will help fish recover more in the future.

“Removing levies, adding large woody debris, planting native plants — [we are] trying our best to remove some of the development in the flood plain,” he says.

But he also thinks it’s very important to remain positive and remember that it’s been hundreds of years since Europeans showed up here and salmon runs started to decline. Fifteen years since the listing of Puget Sound chinook is a drop in the bucket, especially since the science of habitat restoration is so young.

“Trying to mimic nature is very difficult. Everything is interrelated and interconnected, and we don’t have a good grasp on all those connections yet,” Burton says, adding we should not expect depleted populations to bounce back quickly to a level we would consider a recovered state. “But if we can just be patient, learn from our mistakes, I think we’re headed in the right direction.”



Part 3
Ballard Locks Poses Triple Threat To Returning Adult Chinook Salmon

(Courtesy of Eric Warner)

(Courtesy of Eric Warner)

At the heart of Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood is one of the most unique parks in the region. The Hiram M. Chittenden Locks attracts tourists and locals alike. People line up to watch boats move up and down between Puget Sound and Lake Washington in a narrow concrete and metal channel that is, in effect, a kind of marine elevator. It was built with the Ship Canal that replumbed the region at the turn of the last century. The Locks opened in 1917. Along the south side is a fish ladder that has windows where you can see salmon as they migrate through.

This Season’s Chinook Run One Of The Lowest On Record

In the late summer and fall, especially when the tide is coming in, dozens of giant chinook salmon might be visible, along with sockeye and coho swimming upstream on their way to spawning grounds in Issaquah to the north, or the Cedar River to the south. But sometimes the ladder is eerily empty, as was the case one recent afternoon.


Swimming fish are seen through a viewing window at the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks. (Justin Steyer/KPLU)

“There certainly aren’t many fish in there right now,” says Eric Warner, a research biologist with the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe. Warner has been tracking the fish for decades using sonic tags. “The chinook run is a lot lower than we had hoped for this year. It’s not entirely done, but it’s one of the lowest runs — second or third lowest since we started counting at the Locks in 1995.”

The lowest was 1995, when just about 4,000 chinook were counted. That’s even after the addition of millions of fry from a hatchery in Issaquah. A good year would return 10,000 to 15,000, Warner says. But this year, computer models suggest perhaps 5,400 will make it past the Locks and eventually return to their native spawning grounds to reproduce.

All kinds of factors are in play, including everything from conditions on the river where they spawn — for instance, a small flood can knock out thousands of fish eggs in an instant — to ocean conditions affecting fish health and food supply.

Threat 1: The Treacherous Fish Ladder

Warner says lots of improvements have come in since the listing of chinook as an endangered species along with several other fish runs in 1999. At the Locks, for example, special smolt slides were installed in 2007 to provide safer passage for juvenile fish on their way out to sea. And the Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the facility, adjusted the rate at which the large lock is filled, and added strobe lights to keep fish away from hazardous areas.

The Corps also rebuilt the fish ladder in 1976. But it’s still one of the most treacherous obstacles the threatened salmon face on their way upstream. The instinctive drive of the fish to press on compels them to move through it anyway.

“The entrance can be fairly skinny,” Warner says. “And so we see marks on some of the chinook that we tag just from getting scraped on their way into the fish ladder. And the juveniles going out, they end up going through some of the plumbing and they get more than scraped up; they get decimated.”

A chinook salmon is seen at the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks. (Courtesy of Eric Warner)

A chinook salmon is seen at the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks. (Courtesy of Eric Warner)

Threat 2: Sudden Switch From Cold To Warm Water

Even without what amounts to a labyrinth of concrete to get through, Warner says the shift from Puget Sound to Lake Washington presents a huge shock to the fish, which have spent three to five years in cold ocean water before starting their journey home.

“People tend to forget how much salmon need cold water. They’re at about 55 degrees (F) for years, which would give someone hypothermia and kill them within six hours,” Warner says.
After a summer’s worth of warming, the water in the lake is about 72 degrees.

“So you see fish milling around outside of the downstream entrance to the fish ladder. And not to anthropomorphize, but it looks like they’re saying, ‘Do we really have to do that? It’s so hot,’” Warner says.

Threat 3: Hungry Seals And Sea Lions Looking For Fish

When salmon pause at the base of the Locks, they become easy pickings for sea lions and seals who line up to feast on the buffet.

A sea lion lingers by the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks. (Silviu Cucerzan/Flickr)

A sea lion lingers by the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks. (Silviu Cucerzan/Flickr)

Since the 1990s, authorities have tried all kinds of methods to discourage the predators, including relocation programs, rubber bullets and underwater firecrackers. They even tried taste aversion conditioning, which involved feeding sea lions recently-killed fish with bitter lithium chloride capsules inside. Despite those efforts, it’s still pretty likely that if fish are coming through the fish ladder, you’ll see seals and sea lions at the locks, too.

“They’re obviously looking for a meal on one of the salmon,” Warner says of a seal he spots swimming below the Locks, even on this day, when so few fish are visible. Predators may know that the fish stall out and often stay underwater, hesitating to enter the shocking conditions ahead for a long time.

Not Your Typical Salmon Run

Warner says once the fish do get through the Locks, they often remain just beyond the other side for weeks.

The Hiram M. Chittenden Locks. (Bellamy Pailthorp/KPLU)

The Hiram M. Chittenden Locks. (Bellamy Pailthorp/KPLU)

“We’ve found from our tracking that they can be there for two to three weeks on average. And the record for our tracking was 53 days,” Warner says. “We thought that fish was dead.”

He says once it decided to move on, the fish bolted and made it through the Ship Canal, Lake Washington, Lake Sammamish and back to Issaquah hatchery very quickly.

But he worries that the long waiting periods in the warm water could damage the eggs of a female.

“They’re basically stuck in a very small area for a very long time, and we think it’s largely because the conditions are so inhospitable for them to go upstream,” Warner says.

There have been discussions about engineering fixes to lower temperatures in the Ship Canal to make the migration easier, but no practical methods have emerged thus far. As a result, the Locks remain the biggest test for Lake Washington chinook, even ones that reach 20 to 30 pounds as adults. Sometimes it seems like a miracle that any get back to spawning grounds at all, Warner says.

“Especially coming here on a crowded day, it seems like we’re about as far removed from your typical salmon run as it’s possible to get,” he says.

Part 2
Returning Chinook Exposed To Bathtub Of Contaminants In Puget Sound

The Olympic mountains and the Puget Sound are seen beyond downtown Seattle, with Lake Washington, the I-90 floating bridge and Mercer Island in the foreground. (Elaine Thompson/AP Photo)

The Olympic mountains and the Puget Sound are seen beyond downtown Seattle, with Lake Washington, the I-90 floating bridge and Mercer Island in the foreground. (Elaine Thompson/AP Photo)

Puget Sound is one of the most enchanting bodies of water in the Pacific Northwest. Framed by mountains to the east and west, its physical beauty is part of what attracts new people to the region every year.

A total of 115 towns and cities surround this deep inland fjord. But the Sound’s geography is also part of what makes it toxic for fish that migrate through it.

Like A Dirty Bathtub That Never Gets Cleaned

All the polluted runoff and treated sewage from the dense population around the Sound get trapped in and don’t flush out, making it similar to a dirty bathtub that never gets cleaned. Residue from prescription drugs and flame retardants, pesticides and heavy metals are among the contaminants.

“The water within Puget Sound doesn’t exchange as freely with the waters in the open Pacific Ocean,” says Sandie O’Neill, a research biologist with Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife. “And there are lots of fjords further north in British Columbia where you also don’t get that exchange, but the difference is they’re not developed.”

Sail out to Shilshole Bay late in the day, and a sea of lights twinkles from shore. These lights signal the crush of humanity that has built atop the fish habitat here. As a result of the development, the fish that swim through Puget Sound “experience a much more urbanized setting that any other fish up and down the West Coast,” says O’Neill. That translates into degraded habitats, limits on their food supply and more concentrated exposure to toxics from human activities.

‘You Can’t Always See The Contaminants’

O’Neill studies the effects of toxics on chinook salmon. Her work has focused primarily on juvenile fish, which she says are more vulnerable to damage than migrating adult fish.

“The fish that have come down through the river and out through Lake Washington and the [Ballard] Locks and gone on to the Pacific Ocean have been exposed to all kinds of contaminants that can affect their growth, make them more susceptible to disease, things like that,” O’Neill says. “That can really reduce their fat content, their size.”

Salmon swim in Puget Sound. (Mr.E/Flickr)

Salmon swim in Puget Sound. (Mr.E/Flickr)

Smaller, weaker fish are more likely to fall prey to predators. And these chemicals can affect fish survival even in what might look like beautifully restored habitat.

“You can’t always see the contaminants that are in the water,” O’Neill says.

For example, dust-containing residue from toxic flame retardants (such as now-banned PBDEs) goes from people’s couches and clothing into our wastewater. O’Neill says it persists at levels that are harmful to fish and can affect their survival rates.

And very, very small levels of chemicals called PAHs, which are associated with the exhaust from people’s cars, can affect the development of the heart. These often enter the water after rain, which washes residue from streets into gutters and storm drains that empty into the Sound.

“So they can be exposed to really, really low concentrations and you can have quite serious effects, especially on a developing embryo,” she says, for example, by changing the shape of the heart to make it less efficient.

“It doesn’t kill you off right away, but it can affect your swimming speed and ultimately your marine survival,” O’Neill says.

A Detrimental Hurdle At A Critical Time

For adult fish that are returning to their spawning grounds, the clock is ticking. They’re on a kind of pilgrimage. Once they reach sexual maturity and start heading home to their natal waters, they stop eating much. And anything that slows or delays them can keep them from having the energy to survive long enough to make it home and spawn; they’re sometimes found dead in streams not far from their spawning grounds, before they reproduce.

In coho salmon, the cause of this so-called pre-spawn mortality has been linked to runoff from roads. Scientists from the federal Northwest Fisheries Science Center and the Suquamish Tribe immersed adult coho in pure runoff from the State Route 520 bridge and documented its effects.

“Concentrated stormwater can actually kill juvenile fish outright and also fish coming back, coho in particular, as adults can die before they get a chance to spawn,” O’Neill says.

A neurotoxin in the water causes them to lose equilibrium, become disoriented and flop around, she says.

“They are swimming upside down in the water and they basically die before they get a chance to lay their eggs,” O’Neill says, adding that the effects on chinook have not been documented, and those fish may prove less vulnerable.

Many Chemicals With Many Pathways To Cause Injury

O’Neill says subjecting any fish to toxic contaminants in the water they swim through is worse than, say, forcing a human to live or work in a room filled with cigarette smoke. She says that’s primarily one contaminant causing harm through one physical pathway (nicotine going through the lungs), whereas salmon appear to be harmed by a combination of many contaminants entering their systems via multiple pathways.

“For juvenile salmon in particular, they have to migrate through this soup of a whole different type of chemicals. So in some ways it’s quite a bit worse, because it’s many different chemicals with many different pathways to cause injury.”

O’Neill has sampled fish flesh and found the toxics from long-banned chemicals have built up and persist as they are passed through the food chain.

A southern resident J pod orca whale swims in Puget Sound in view of Mount Rainier and downtown Seattle. (Elaine Thompson/AP Photo)

A southern resident J pod orca whale swims in Puget Sound in view of Mount Rainier and downtown Seattle. (Elaine Thompson/AP Photo)

“Puget Sound fish in general have three to five times higher levels of certain contaminants — PCBs, flame retardants — than other salmon populations up and down the coast,” she says.

She says part of the cause is the tub-like geography of the Sound. But there is also a large population of chinook, probably as much as 30 percent, that have evolved to reside in Puget Sound year-round. They pick up the highest levels of contaminants. And adult chinook are the preferred source of food for endangered orca whales, so they get exposed as well.

“So the J pod that spends more time in Puget Sound actually has higher levels of contamination than L and K pod,” O’Neill says.

‘There’s A Strong Will In The Region To Make This A Better Place’

Despite the disheartening nature of her research, O’Neill says there are plenty of bright spots to keep her motivated.

“I think people are so much more aware now than they ever have been about how their behaviors affect the quality and the health of the sound,” she says. Drivers know they should take their cars to car washes where the stormwater will be filtered on its way to the storm drain. Homeowners are installing rain gardens on their properties, reducing pesticide use, fixing leaky septic tanks and scooping pet waste to keep waste out of storm drains.

(Martha Kang/KPLU)

(Martha Kang/KPLU)

And on a higher level, she points to the work of the state’s Puget Sound Partnership, which she says provides a regional governance structure.

“So you have a lot of different groups getting together to try to solve problems. And there are some successes,” she says.

For example, she cites Washington state’s first-in-the-nation ban on PBDEs, a toxic flame retardant.

“That’s a great thing,” she says. “And there’s great developments with stormwater technology. We’re starting to see that we can treat stormwater and get some of these toxics out.  So I think there’s plenty of reasons for hope, and that’s just from a toxics perspective.”

In addition, O’Neill says changes to physical habitat for salmon are cause for optimism, from fish passage improvements at Landsburg Dam on the Cedar River where Lake Washington chinook spawn, to near-shore improvements in the Nisqually River delta and estuaries along the Snohomish and Skagit rivers, to the largest dam removal ever in the U.S. on the Elwha River near Port Angeles.

“I think there’s a strong will in the region to make this a better place, and I think it will be,” O’Neill says.

Part 1
Adult Chinook In The Pacific Ocean Prepare For Long Journey Home

(Justin Steyer/KPLU)

A salmon jumps in the Pacific Ocean. (Justin Steyer/KPLU)

Seagulls peck at the remains of the day's catch. (Justin Steyer/KPLU)

Seagulls peck at the remains of the day’s catch. (Justin Steyer/KPLU)

As soon as you arrive in Sekiu, Washington, you’re hit with a whiff of salty ocean air laced with the unmistakable smell of fresh fish. The scent fills your nostrils as the gulls mew nearby, fighting for the remains of the day’s catch in the protective cove.

Located 20 miles east of Neah Bay by car, the fishing village has a long reputation for good salmon fishing. It’s also where we pick up the trail of the Lake Washington chinook. The subset of the Puget Sound salmon were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1999 and traced here by scientists who tag them.

The fish spend their adult lives in this open ocean before heading home to spawn in the Cedar River or in Bear Creek, or the state hatchery in Issaquah.

‘A Surprisingly Quiet’ Season

(Justin Steyer/KPLU)

(Justin Steyer/KPLU)

Pulling into Sekiu, one might expect a bustling fishing village with flotillas of boats hooking plenty of salmon, perhaps because the summer’s headlines have touted a record run of Columbia River chinook.

Towns like Westport have been booming with the projected return of 1.5 million chinook, also known as king salmon. Anglers at Buoy 10 on the river this year reportedly spent more time looking for a place to set up their gear than they did reaching daily limits, thanks to successful management of the dams, hatcheries and habitat down south.

Also often mentioned in the reports are favorable ocean conditions that have allowed more adult fish from the Columbia River system to survive. But those ocean conditions aren’t doing much for the fishing in Sekiu.

“It’s surprisingly quiet. Usually one of the peak times of the year is right now,” says veteran guide Roy Morris, a lifelong salmon fisherman who has kept a charter boat at the docks in Sekiu for 20 years.

Unusually Warm Water 

Morris says there has been a steady decline in fish stocks. And this year, he says everyone in Sekiu is reporting “one of the lowest year of catches for salmon, particularly chinook.”

Roy Morris examines his line. (Justin Steyer/KPLU)

Roy Morris examines his line. (Justin Steyer/KPLU)

One reason, he suspects, is the unusually warm water, which he says has been about 5 degrees hotter than normal.

“We’ve been seeing it on our instruments on our boat all year long. We couldn’t believe our instruments were correct when we saw 58 degrees, where usually it’s 49, 52,” he says. “And that changes the conditions for feed for the salmon as well as their desire to be in that warmer water.”

The warm water off the Northwest coast, which is linked to one of the hottest summers the region has ever seen, is what’s believed to have caused a record number of sockeye to bypass Sekiu and many other ports in Washington in favor of cooler waters in Canada. Morris says it probably hasn’t helped the chinook here, either.

“It is surprising, because I know there’s many people working together to try to improve conditions and survival for salmon, but it’s up and down from year to year within a decade, [and] this year is some of the lowest catches for Puget Sound chinook that we’ve ever witnessed,” he says.

‘We Have Only One Chinook In The Freezer’

Ocean conditions are a bit of a black box for scientists; they know that huge percentages of the young salmon that leave freshwater never return as adults, but information about why is scarce. The recent launch of an international research effort, the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project, seeks to fill the information gap.

But for Morris, it’s just one of many causes. He cites as another cause the influence of hatchery fish that are released in droves then feed on limited food sources “like a herd of sheep” while wild fish trickle out gradually. But he links most of the fish’s decline to urbanization and development that destroys fish habitat.

He remembers the days of his youth in the 1950s and ‘60s when salmon fishing was such a popular family vacation that you could hardly find a place to park your boat in places like Ilwaco.

“Because it came with a bounty of fish that were canned and smoked and frozen, so that after your vacation you ended up with two or three hundred pounds of salmon,” he says. “Now, we have only one chinook in the freezer, where last year, we had 15, so we’ll be fishing hard [for the rest of the season].”

Why The Chinook Is King

Chinook hold a special status in the world of sport fishing.

Roy Morris' wife, Nancy Messmer, holds up a chinook salmon she caught off the coast of Sekiu, Washington. (Courtesy of Nancy Messmer)

Roy Morris’ wife, Nancy Messmer, holds up a chinook salmon she caught off the coast of Sekiu, Washington. (Courtesy of Nancy Messmer)

“[It’s] called the king because it’s the biggest and the most spectacular,” Morris says, noting that sometime his guests get frightened by how long and hard the fish will pull on a line. Morris calls them “the long distance runners.” He notes that Columbia River chinook traverse nearly the entire state and reach Canada before coming back home. And his favorites, the Puget Sound chinook, even climb mountains.

“They go right to the North Cascades,” he says. And they enjoy iconic status, with tourists coming from all over to seek them out. They’re also some of the tastiest, with firm flesh, he says, “because it chored higher and higher into the watersheds.”

And they get harder to catch at this time of year, when their bodies start changing with physiology that signals it’s time for them to head to home waters and spawn. They lose interest in food, presenting extra challenges for anglers who use special lures and techniques to hook them.

“There’s slang talk like ‘slack jaw’ and more formal talk is ‘waiting fish.’ They’re not so much chowing down to build their body,” he says. “Reproductive capabilities are being developed more than muscle tissue. And as that chemistry changes, their desire to return to the natal stream and spawn overrides their desire to hunt and feed.”

‘I’m Here As A Witness To The Process’

Roy Morris, left, and his wife, Nancy Messmer. (Justin Steyer/KPLU)

Roy Morris, left, and his wife, Nancy Messmer. (Justin Steyer/KPLU)

Morris is not just a seasoned salmon fisherman; he’s exceptionally passionate about saving the fish. He says he caught his first salmon when he was 5, helped his grandson catch one at age 4 and wants that lineage to continue. But does he ever think it would be better to stop hunting an endangered species? Yes, he says, but as long as the fishing is allowed, he wants to be part of it.

“I’m here as a witness to the process,” he says. “I’m not fishing greedily to catch the last salmon, but I am participating in the seasons and open times that you can enjoy the sport.”

By being out on the water 100 days a year and also volunteering on boards as a representative of sport fishermen, he feels his perspective is an important contribution to augment data sets collected by government agencies. And he sees part of his role as educating the public about endangered fish and the issues they face.

‘If You Give’em A Chance, They Will Survive’

“The chinook is one of the more fragile of the spectrum of salmon in the Northwest,” Morris says. He remembers when they were first listed 15 years ago and the fishery was closed. He thought it might never reopen, that their declines had gone too far.

Nancy Messmer looks out at her line. (Justin Steyer/KPLU)

Nancy Messmer looks out at her line. (Justin Steyer/KPLU)

“But where barriers are removed, they’re amazing the way that they’ll try to fight for their survival if they’re given half a chance,” he says.

One only needs to look to Issaquah Creek and its Salmon Days festival for evidence, he says.  In places where habitat has been restored and fish protected with policies, the fish do come back.

“At one time, those stocks had dwindled to just such small numbers, people had never even seen them or knew they were in the river. Now they throng and there’s a celebration … with booths and festivals, and people hanging over bridges,” he says. “That just is testimony to that if you give’em a chance, they will survive.”

And he sees another ray of hope in the recent return of chinook to the Elwha River, where the nation’s largest dam removal has just been completed.

“We saw fish in a habitat that there had not been wild salmon in for 100 years,” he says. “It’s just evidence that fish can return if they’re given a chance and proper conditions.”