Images taken at Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, aka Ballard Locks, in Seattle Washington.
Summer means salmon runs at the Ballard Locks fish ladder . . . twenty-one watery steps from Puget Sound, to the ship canal, to the fresh water spawning grounds where the returning salmon were born. Salmon are a miracle of navigational skills, sometimes migrating thousands of miles during their years in the ocean, possibly guided by magnestism in the same way homing pigeons navigate with help of the earth’s magnetic fields.
Then, salmon ultimately find their way to their birthplace by an imprinted sense of smell: the scent of plants, gravel, the transitional smells of salt water to brackish to fresh, aromas that beckon the Chinook, Coho, Sockeye (and the occasional endangered Steelhead) homeward. Wild salmon, most threatened or endangered in Washington, squander all of their energy, immunity and body fat to finally dig their redd (nest) and spawn before dying. Hatchery salmon swim a divergent path but live parallel lives, muscling their own way back to their hatching ponds.
The experience that is salmonid is circular, cyclical, and eternal. Were it not for the blockades we humans have erected, the warm and shady estuarine nurseries we’ve scraped away, the rivers and creeks we’ve tapped to trickles, salmon would be leaping upstream by the 20-thousands, as they did in the time of Lewis and Clark. Still, even with each challenge we’ve put before them as species, salmon persist in going home. It could be a most poetic and romantic notion were it not a burning imperative. Salmon insist on hearing the ancient call of their own forebearers — the call for birth and rebirth in the salt-ways, fresh-ways, and pebbled redds of Northwestern streams.
In some places, people have made this continued passage possible, in spite of turbines and spillways that claim thousands each year. Fish passes or fish ladders circumvent the impossibility of cement barriers for the salmon folk. At the Ballard Locks, just a few miles from where I live, I — well, thousands of I’s, resident and touristed — have a view into the murky green deep of the salmon’s life cycle. In the spring, the smolt pour out of flumes, tail first, with the flumes designed to avert the dangers young salmon face in the spillway. In summer, the crooked faces of three or four-year-old salmon appear through the glass, as these adults return from their oceanic or Puget Sound existence to swim against currents into the ship canal and toward home.
Coho and Chinook are on their way to spawn, passing through one very public phase of their journey: first the outdoor ladder, stepping up one foot at a time, from the Sound, into these churning ponds and toward fresh water lakes:
Then the window passage, where visitors can watch the tired salmon continue their paddle upstream, or swim in place against the attraction water or attraction flow (water moving in the opposite direction):
In this photo, the ladder is raised at an angle to give taggers above the ladder, a chance to net and tag some Chinook:
Salmon are placed in this recovery pen before being released, gently coaxed in this small space, to reestablish proper gill function:
The lower entrance to the fish ladder is a doorway of an opening, one naturally exploited by California sea lions whose Washington arrival coincides with the fish runs.
The behavior of California sea lions at the locks and at bottleneck areas like Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River is contentious. Sea Lions have been fishing salmon for centuries, but in the face of the salmon’s threatened status throughout Washington, the sea lion’s appetite has come under serious and often unfair scrutiny. The biggest threats to salmon have been and continue to be human encroachment on habitat, human pollution of waterways, and human overfishing. The sea lion’s impact on an already beleaguered population is estimated to be between 2 and 4 percent. The Sea Lion Defense Brigade has a Myths and Facts paper on this issue. And the Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office has information on salmon recovery efforts, the status of salmon numbers, and the success of habitat restoration efforts.
Sea lions thrash the carcass of the dead salmon to break it up into edible pieces, tossing the pieces with a whip of the head. Gulls almost always hover overhead for scraps:
Watching the fishing spectacle from the sidelines, a male Osprey and a female Belted Kingfisher share a branch above the Ballard Locks spillway:
This male Osprey has a mate who calls from a nearby nest above the locks: