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Pikes/Pines | Montlake, Madison Park part of Seattle salmon superhighway

Take a moment and look at a topographic map of Capitol Hill. You’ll notice the narrow contours, hills that drain into our nearby waterways. Our adjacency to water means that we can flock to Lake Washington to cool off and also enjoy the fresh seafood the Sound provides. We essentially straddle a isthmus between sound and lake. When we splash about places like Madison Park Beach this time of year, we we are in fact sharing them with a bevy of creatures, not the least of which are salmon.

Lake Washington and the connective Cedar River and Sammamish watersheds cover a combined 692 square miles of habitat. We directly share this area with a fish that are simultaneously a cultural and bio-regional icon, a source of economic vitality, and a threatened group of species. Sockeye, Chinook, and Coho Salmon have been caught in the waters near Capitol Hill long before settlers arrived, but being raised in Seattle (where salmon education ran close to indoctrination), I easily forget that the incredible lives these fish lead isn’t always common knowledge. So, let’s understand these icons that travel through Lake Washington in growth and decay.


Salmon in the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks. Credit: Brendan McGarry

The basis of most Salmonid life (the salmon and trout family) starts in a spawning stream, where female laid eggs are fertilized by males. Eggs hatch into small alevin, temporarily nourished off a yolk sack, lacking a mouth for feeding. Once this sack is full absorbed, the alevin develop into a stage we call fry. Now fully recognizable as young fish, they begin feeding and schooling together as well as avoiding a long line of predators salmon encounter throughout their lives from kingfishers to herons and people to orcas. Depending on the species and the circumstances, these fry develop over the course of days or years into their next phase, smolt.

This second process signifies one of the greatest physiological leaps these fish will make. The beginning of the transformation from freshwater juvenile to saltwater adult. In the process smolt, will make their way to saltwater, where they will gain weight and grow into full sized adults. In a few years, depending on the species, they’ll return to the general vicinity of where they spawned to reproduce and in most cases die. In death they leave their young to fend for themselves, but give the gift of fertilization to surrounding plants, helping shade and protect their young in early development.


A dead salmon, expired post spawning. Credit: Brendan McGarry

Fish with the epic lifestyle of freshwater to saltwater and back are described as anadromous (not to be confused with androgynous), puting us in contact with salmon at both ends of their life. Looking at a map of spawing sites around Lake Washington, one easily sees that there are no sites near Capitol Hill. Our urban progress quickly altered the fragile balance salmon need for their young to survive. That said, heading for tributaries of the nearby Sammamish and Cedar River Watersheds adult Chinook, Coho, and Sockeye salmon spawn in not too distant nor unconnected water, (another, landlocked species of Sockeye, the Kokanee, never descends into saltwater, instead growing to adulthood in Lake Washington).

Above are bare basics, so all you salmon experts, don’t fault me for brevity’s generalization.

At the time this was drafted, starting on June 12, a total of 56,411 Sockeye Salmon have passed through the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks in Ballard (along with the Locks, here’s a list salmon viewing locales), where the bulk of the fish that course through Lake Washington pass. Our numbers of Chinook, which face a threat of local extinction, and Coho are much lower, but all these species swim our lake shores in varying peaks and troughs now through late fall. At the beginning of their lives they also pass by as fry and smolt, bound for the Sound.

If you are like me, you love eating salmon, reason enough to care about these fish and consider our connections to their lives. As a whole Washingtonians have done much to damage salmon fisheries through pollution and habitat destruction, but we’ve made major strides in restoration too. Even places close to home, like the daylighting of Madrona Creek are small, but encouraging steps for salmon. To date 16 of Washington’s salmonid species have been listed as federally threatened and endangered, but with the 1998 establishment of the Salmon Recovery Act the state legislature and the governor’s office gave direct support to organizations and citizens attempting to revitalize these iconic species (for more information read the 2012 State of Salmon in Watersheds Executive Report).

We aren’t there yet, but when I swim at Madison Park, I like to think that somewhere below my feet are salmon, going about their ancient ritual of freshwater to saltwater and back again.

Previously in Pikes/Pines

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