Last Hurrah? Pessimistic Angler Wants To Open Lake Washington Sockeye One Final Time

A Washington sockeye angler is calling on WDFW to open Lake Washington this summer for a last-hurrah season if more than 100,000 of the salmon pass through the Ballard Locks.

We’re already nearly one-fifth of the way there, with 19,139 counted as of yesterday and the usual run peaks still ahead of us.

But it would be a sharp change from past fisheries, which haven’t been held until managers were sure 350,000 were entering the system, and would require tribal comanagers to sign off on.

IMAGES FROM THE LAST LAKE WASHINGTON SOCKEYE FISHERY, IN 2006. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

Frank Urabeck, a long time fisheries activist, terms it a “token, for old times’ sake” opportunity in an email to WDFW Director Jim Unsworth and a number of agency honchos late this afternoon.

“Looking at the Cedar River wild and hatchery production data I am convinced this is last chance we will have for run to be this good and an opportunity to show what it once was like. Public deserves something given the significant imbalance in cumulative harvest as a result of the tribal C&S fisheries since 2006,” Urabeck writes.

He worries the system’s sockeye population may be past a “tipping point” to ever recover and host an opener at that higher return level.

It certainly feels like this is a fishery from bygone days, or at least the dawn of the Twitter and Facebook age.

While the Suquamish and Muckleshoot Tribes have had limited annual ceremonial and subsistence sockeye fisheries with a total catch Urabeck estimates at 30,000 to 40,000, it hasn’t been since 2006 that salmon mania has descended on the big water just east of Seattle.

(ANDY WALGAMOTT)

Since then Urabeck and the rest of us have been on the sidelines, carefully watching the locks counts in hopes there might be enough, but always turning away disappointed, despite the promise of the new Seattle Public Utilities hatchery on the Cedar River, capable of cranking out 34 million sockeye fry.

Unfortunately, as they rear in the lake for a year, many if not most smolts are being eaten by piscivorous fish and other predators.

And returning adults are increasingly dying from disease after they pass from the locks to the lake through the too-warm, relatively shallow ship canal — 40 percent of Cedar-bound sockeye in both 2014 and 2015, according to the Muckleshoot Tribe.

Despite record hatchery fry production in 2012, which should have yielded as many as 500,000 adults, according to Urabeck, instead we saw one of the most abysmal returns on record, just 12,000 to 15,000 back to the Cedar.

But at the same time, recent years’ returns, including this one, were at sea through The Blob and most likely were affected like 2015’s pinks and coho, so it’s possible runs could bounce back with improving ocean conditions and increased control of freshwater predator species.

(ANDY WALGAMOTT)

Still, hopes for slapping some homegrown sockeye on Seattle barbecues have been fizzling for some time.

So with the future looking grim in his eyes, Urabeck is calling for a couple days of fishing some time in late July or early August, and foresees a harvest of 10,000.

“The proposed special fishery would not have any significant impact on sockeye reaching the Cedar River and the sockeye hatchery operated by the City of Seattle, which has failed to meet expectations. Remember, the Cedar River sockeye were introduced from the Baker River and are under no ESA constraint,” he writes to Unsworth.

If the state and tribes get on board and enough sockeye actually arrive — the official forecast calls for 77,292 back to the locks and it’s hard to say whether 2017’s good start means the run is early or big or both — it could also give local tackle stores a much-needed shot in the arm after two deflating summers.

The 18-day 2006 season produced $8.6 million in economic benefits and a catch of 59,000 sockeye, according to WDFW.

We’ll fold in comment from the agency as it arrives.

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