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Lake Washington Sockeye Count Tops 110,000, But Declining

The odds of a Lake Washington sockeye fishery this year — long to begin with — seem remoter still with today’s updated count unless somehow hesitant salmon managers acquiesce to a Hail Mary bid.

A total of 111,509 have passed through the Ballard Locks since the tally began June 12, and the year’s best days appear to be behind us.

IT’S BEEN 11 YEARS SINCE THE LAST LAKE WASHINGTON SOCKEYE FISHERY, AND DESPITE CALLS FOR AN “OLD TIMES SAKE” SEASON THIS YEAR, THAT’S INCREASINGLY UNLIKELY WITH THE LATEST BALLARD LOCKS COUNTS. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

Nearly 7,500 were counted July 4, with 21,740 in the three days before and day afterwards.

But since then daily counts have dipped to 2,772 Wednesday and 2,271 yesterday.

The run has typically peaked by now, though of note 2006 didn’t hit its midmark till mid-July.

If there’s good news, it’s that the forecast of 77,292 was wrong, and there does appear to be some softening on the standing escapement goal of 350,000 sockeye to trigger sport and commercial tribal fisheries.

According to a recent WDFW letter, talks have been ongoing with the comanagers about “a new abundance-based management framework that allows for some directed fisheries at run-sizes of 200,000 or greater.”

Written July 7, the communique from Director Jim Unsworth expresses cautious optimism that that figure might be reached.

But Frank Urabeck, a longtime recreational angling advocate who closely watches the counts, now estimates the run will come in somewhere north of 130,000, which is above the 100,000 that he hoped might trigger a “token, for old times’ sake” fishery on Lake Washington, where we haven’t seen a sockeye season since 2006.

Since then, an average of 78,000 — high: 2013’s 178,422; low: 2009’s 21,718 — have entered the locks with fewer still actually spawning.

By comparison, between 2006 and 1972, only three years saw 78,000 or fewer sockeye enter; even the bad salmon years of the mid-1990s were higher.

It’s believed that despite the new Seattle Public Utilities hatchery on the Cedar River, young sockeye are suffering increasing and strong predation in the lake and as they make their way through the Ship Canal, which also appears to be a thermal block for returning adults, leaving them more prone to disease.

This year’s run would also have been at sea during the fish-run-destroying Blob.

Among Urabeck’s aims is to draw attention to what he considers to be a failing run, and he sees this year’s return as what amounts to a last-gasp opportunity to get anglers on the lake and rally support for what once was a wonderful salmon fishery in the heart of the state’s biggest metropolis.

If you never had a chance to partake in it, it was the absolute best kind of insanity going.

Urabeck wants one last go.

“I encourage sportfishing anglers to contact Director Unsworth and the MIT to encourage them to avoid losing this special opportunity to gain public support for our fisheries programs,” he said this morning.

Unsworth, who wrote that Urabeck’s call for a season if the count hit 100,000 “certainly caught my attention,” agreed that Lake Washington salmon aren’t faring well, but was more optimistic about the future.

“It will be a challenging task, but the restoration of clear, clean, and swimmable water to Lake Washington in the 1960s shows what can be accomplished with our engaged and supportive public,” Unsworth states in the letter to Urabeck.

The director says that his agency as well as the tribes, county and utilities are “now implementing and advocating for the actions necessary to improve salmon survival in the Lake Washington basin.”

“In this urban setting, we will need to think ‘out-of-the-box’ to find solutions that provide for salmon in the future. In part, this will likely require rethinking how we use our hatcheries. As you recall, we joined with you and others in the Year-15 Comprehensive Review of the City of Seattle’s Habitat Conservation Plan in recommending new supplementation techniques that maximize fry-to-adult survival through a combination of extended rearing and delayed release timing,” Unsworth states.

Meanwhile, the Muckleshoot and Suquamish Tribes are holding their annual ceremonial and subsistence fisheries, with goals of 1,000 and 2,500 sockeye each, and yesterday saw dipnetting in the ladder as tribal biologists in conjunction with WDFW collected salmon for a longterm biological sampling program.

What the longterm health of the sportfishery holds is anyone’s guess, but at the moment, it is on life support at best this year.

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.