Climbing the [Salmon] Ladder to Success

//Climbing the [Salmon] Ladder to Success

Climbing the [Salmon] Ladder to Success

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.

Smolt Flumes at Ballard Locks in Seattle

Smolt Flumes at the Ballard Locks - ©ingridtaylar

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.

Salmon Smolt in Flumes

Silhouettes of salmon smolt, heading into flumes tail first - ©ingridtaylar

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:

Salmon Ladder at Ballard Locks

Salmon Ladder at Ballard Locks - ©ingridtaylar

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):

Salmon Viewing Window at Ballard Locks

Salmon Viewing Windows - ©ingridtaylar

Salmon on Fish Ladder at Ballard Locks

Salmon Entering the Viewing Area - ©ingridtaylar

Chinook Salmon

Large Adult Chinook Salmon - ©ingridtaylar

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 at the Ballard Locks Fish Ladder

A Crowd at the Fish Ladder - ©ingridtaylar

The tagging:

Salmon Netted for Tagging at Ballard Locks

Salmon Netted for Tagging - ©ingridtaylar

Salmon Restrained Temporarily, Handed Off For Tagging - ©ingridtaylar

Holding Salmon for Tagging - ©ingridtaylar

Tagged Salmon

Tagged Salmon - ©ingridtaylar

Salmon are placed in this recovery pen before being released, gently coaxed in this small space, to reestablish proper gill function:

Salmon Tagging Recovery Pen

Recovery Pen, Before Release - ©ingridtaylar

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.

Fish Ladder Entrance (upper right) - ©ingridtaylar

California Sea Lion Swimming

California Sea Lion Swimming In - ©ingridtaylar

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.

California sea lion eating salmon

Sea Lion Eating Salmon - ©ingridtaylar

Sea Lion Catching Salmon at Ballard Locks

Sea Lion's Catch at Ballard Locks - ©ingridtaylar

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:

Sea Lion at Ballard Locks

Salmon Toss - ©ingridtaylar

Watching the fishing spectacle from the sidelines, a male Osprey and a female Belted Kingfisher share a branch above the Ballard Locks spillway:

Osprey and Belted Kingfisher at Ballard Locks

Osprey and Kingfisher Sharing Space - ©ingridtaylar

This male Osprey has a mate who calls from a nearby nest above the locks:

Male Osprey at Ballard Locks in Seattle

Male Osprey Above the Locks - ©ingridtaylar

By | 2011-08-10T00:18:09+00:00 August 10th, 2011|Birds, Blog, Pacific Northwest, Raptors, Sea Scale Snail|5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Glenn Nevill August 11, 2011 at 10:49 am

    Good story Ingrid. I did not know about the tagging.

  2. […] experience that is salmonid is circular, cyclical, and eternal. Salmon insist on hearing the ancient call of their own […]

  3. Will February 21, 2012 at 11:14 pm

    Ingrid, Your work is truly enjoyable. I was checking on the locks out of a stray curiosity; looking to see what improvements the Corps may have made to improve fish passage. When sea lions were being targeted for eating steelhead years ago, the Corps resisted making changes at first. Eventually, they added the smolt flumes you photographed. Smolt used to have to get out through the extreme turbulence inside the freshwater tunnels that fill the locks. Unfortunately, the walls were encrusted with razor-sharp barnacles that really tore the smolt up. Thanks again.

    • ingrid February 22, 2012 at 12:07 am

      Will, thanks for the kind note … and for the additional information. When I talked to a docent at the locks, he mentioned some of the hazards of smolt life, but envisioning the barnacle-encrusted pathways gives me full appreciation for the flumes. I will look upon them with even more awe and respect when I consider the alternatives. I miss the hooked faces of salmon in the windows, now that the lock passages are quiet for a time.

      • ingrid February 22, 2012 at 12:11 am

        p.s. Will, I went to your website and was elated to see in the masthead, the familiar names of so many I respect. Thank you for stopping by and for pointing me to this great source of information. I’ll keep checking back for the blog-in-progress.

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