Muckleshoot’s Ballard Locks program shows promise

When the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe embarked on a pilot program to transport sockeye from the Ballard Locks to a hatchery, it was modest in scale, with 300 fish being transported by truck to avoid the deadly conditions that lay in their path.

Now in its third year, the Ballard Locks Adult Sockeye Transfer (BLAST) program is showing promise that it could help preserve the run for generations to come.

The program started as a way to cut down on high mortality rates for sockeye that, having already been weakened by their long trip to the ocean and back, faced a final ordeal of warming waters and disease before reaching their spawning grounds.

Adult sockeye arrive to the Ballard Locks’ fish ladder relatively healthy, said Muckleshoot harvest management manager Mike Mahovlich, but the environment beyond is treacherous, with alarmingly high mortality rates.

“If we didn’t do anything, they’d be extinct in a few years,” he said.

The tribe partnered with Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to collect sockeye and truck them to a hatchery where they spend up to four months in clean water until they are ready to spawn.

Staff involved with the BLAST program are attentive to every detail, from the temperature of the water in the trucks to the origin of the ice—sourced from the Cedar River watershed—used to combat the high water temperatures during the transfer.

“A lot of details go into making the fish as comfortable as possible,” Mahovlich said.

Due to the dwindling run and looming threats, the last Lake Washington sockeye fishery was held in 2006. Mahovlich envisions the BLAST program leading to a time of harvesting sockeye again.

“The goal of the program is to stop the decline and get back to sustainable productive fisheries,” he said.

While much work remains to be done, the program’s early results are promising, with low mortality rates and high egg takes among the transported sockeye. After 300 fish were transported the first year, around 900 were moved the second year. Both years saw a mortality rate around 2%, a dramatic improvement compared to about 50% without intervention.

“This is a just another good example of a co-management success story that is against all odds in this urban concrete jungle of a watershed,” Mahovlich said.

Muckleshoot technician Colton Mahovlich counts salmon at the viewing window of the Ballard Locks. Photo and story: Trevor Pyle