Seattle Sockeye Salmon Say, “Sayonara!”

The first steelhead I ever caught in August 2006, a hatchery fish from the Skykomish River about half an hour north of Seattle, Wash. Hatchery fish always are pitiful substitutes for replacing native fish.

Sockeye salmon have become functionally extinct in Seattle, Wash. Last week, the final remnants of that city’s once-famed sockeye run were scooped up in hand nets, loaded onto trucks and driven to holding pens. There they will be milked for eggs and milt in hopes that science can save those few remaining fish that have thrived in the Pacific Northwest for 6 million years.

Sadly, trucking the salmon was a final act of desperation on the part of fishery managers, because decades of conservation efforts failed to stop the sockeyes’ decline. For example, according to the Seattle Times, the sockeye run that numbered nearly 500,000 fish in 2006 has dwindled to a trickle of merely 3,500 returning salmon in 2022. Officials hope to capture about a third of the remaining sockeye for the captive breeding program.

With so few sockeye to repopulate the Cedar River – which flows into Seattle’s Lake Washington and was home to the largest urban salmon run in the world – that sockeye population is certainly doomed to extinction without scientific intervention. While success stories are rare for fish reintroduction on such a large scale, the alternative is unthinkable – because there are no alternatives conceived.

Those sockeye were still swimming freely when I first fished the Cedar River in 2007. I worked at the Avid Angler, Seattle’s second-oldest fly shop founded in 1975. As a dutiful fly-shop employee, and Pacific Northwest fishing novice more accustomed to Ozark Mountain trout streams than rivers full of spawning salmon, I set out to learn about salmon, where they live and how to catch them on the fly.

Sockeye, I learned from wise Northwest natives, eat only phytoplankton and tiny plant matter, and cannot easily be taken on the fly without essentially snagging the fish (called “flossing” by PNW anglers). Some anglers tied algae-green flies without much more success than those swinging flies and snagging sockeye. As a result, I never caught a sockeye, but I saw them spawning in the Cedar River, where they returned every other year to reproduce. Their bright red bodies and green heads were unmistakable against the river’s dull brown gravel bed.

Other salmon facts weren’t as fun to discover. The most surprising was that there are no salmon from the Pacific Northwest served in Seattle restaurants or sold in Seattle seafood shops. Even the famed Pike Place Market, where salmon are comically tossed by fish mongers while tourist crowds cheer, solely sells Alaskan and Canadian salmon. Even though the salmon symbol is used throughout Washington State, the salmon are mostly a memory in every stream statewide.

Like decades of harvest restrictions and conservation efforts, most hatchery-raised salmon have failed to resolve the diminished populations. Weather it’s Chum salmon, Chinook, Koho, Pink or Sockeye (not to mention steelhead), all five salmon species that once numbered in the millions are on their last fins, so to speak. Even salmon runs in the massive Columbia River have nearly collapsed. Fish still return, although in lesser numbers each year, but the wild fish that carry all-important primal genetics imperative to preserving each salmon species no longer comprise the majority. Hatchery fish, studies show, are genetically inferior to wild salmon, and no salmon run on earth can thrive from hatchery fish alone. That’s why the Cedar River sockeye in Seattle will likely soon become a fishy memory, too, because farming those fish in labs will never produce a lasting and healthy sockeye population.

Causes of salmon number declines are as numerous as the efforts tried to save the fish. From ocean warming to pollution, habitat loss and water quality impacts, salmon face many foes for survival, but most are caused by human activity. The Seattle Times casually cited, “the pressures of urbanization” as one culprit, which is a kind way of saying, “People did it.” And even though fly shop customers at Avid Angler swore that the salmon were doomed because of tribal over-fishing or sea lion predation, the real source of extinction was standing in the fly shop blaming everything but themselves.

The unavoidable fact is that there are too many humans in the Pacific Northwest to allow room for free-spawning salmon populations. For example, King County, where Seattle is located, has more residents than the entire state of Arkansas. And each one of them, and millions more who live across the region, all want housing, jobs and lifestyles that directly impact the fish habitat. Despite the decades of obvious damage to fish stocks, few people are surrendering their way of living to protect salmon. No one is moving away from Seattle except the sockeye.

Mt. Baker stands watch over the Skagit River in Washington State, where salmon are now mostly memories.

Although I became a dedicated steelhead angler in four years living in Seattle, today I know that those nearly extinct fish – and their sockeye salmon cousins – do not need me disturbing their ancient spawning ritual. As a result, I made the once-unthinkable decision to hang up my fly rod and waders when it comes to chasing endangered fish like salmon and steelhead. There are too many “pressures of urbanization,” and efforts to counter them to save all salmon species are entirely unsuccessful.

The solution to sockeye salmon survival cannot be found in the lab. It must come from reducing all human impacts on fish populations across the globe, from the Pacific Northwest to Arkansas. Unfortunately, those urban pressures will not cease until humans reduce demands on the earth and its fisheries. And that’s as likely as half-a-million sockeye salmon once again swimming through Seattle into Lake Washington, up the Cedar River and back to home again.

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