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Chutes And Ladders: Seattle’s Salmon Face A Difficult Journey Through Ballard Locks

Among the many wonders at the Ballard Locks is a fish ladder. The ladder encourages threatened salmon to swim up or downstream, to keep them safe from boats passing through the canal.

The ladder is more like a maze. It’s a series of concrete steps filled with rushing water that the fish swim up against, driven by the instinct to return to their native spawning ground and reproduce.  

Migration is rough for most salmon wherever they swim upstream. There is a triple threat of marine predators, temperature change and natural obstacles created by drought or flooding.  The salmon also face physiological changes that come from returning to freshwater from saltwater. 

But at the Ballard Locks, all of those factors are made much more extreme.

Credit Parker Miles Blohm / KNKX

A Difficult Journey On Display

“When they get this far, you don’t want to lose them because of a cement structure,” says Mike Mahovlich, the Harvest Management Manager for the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe. The tribe is one of the most important stewards of these fish.

Mahovlich points out that the Army Corp’s ladder is made of rough concrete.

The ladder has lots of corners and box-like structures the fish have to jump through. The passages are narrow. The walls are like sandpaper and can bang up the fish

The whole thing creates a bottleneck on what was once a natural riverbed home to a much larger salmon run.

Still, the fish here continue to do their thing, as best they can.

“Some use the ladder more – like Sockeye, about 80% of the fish will come through the ladder,” Mahovlich said

Tourists and educators come from all over the region to see how the ladder works. They go into the cave-like underwater viewing area. Inside, it’s like an aquarium, with large windows to view the fish passages.

Groups of schoolchildren and families visiting the fish ladder coo with delight at the spectacle of a three-foot threatened Chinook swimming its way up. Visitors also see smaller fish, such as the silvery sockeye, which turns a bluish color as it heads upstream.

In addition to the ladder itself, the Ballard locks offer educational material for visitors to the locks.
Credit Parker Miles Blohm / KNKX
In addition to the ladder itself, the Ballard locks offer educational material for visitors to the locks.

Also on display are the young smolts on their way out that “look like little mini salmon – they’re only 6-inches long,” Mahovlich says.

The Army Corps of Engineers and others are considering new ways to make the passage smoother. Mahovlich compares it to the way people try to keep their children safe.

“We need to work with the Army Corps and try to create walls that are kind of like … a bouncy house, where they’re not going to get hurt,” he said.

The Corps has been working on improving the cannon-like chutes and spillways that push the little ones out to the ocean.

A Culture At Stake

The Muckleshoot call themselves "Salmon People."

Though salmon can seem like just another commodity, for many local tribes it is also a source of sustenance that created an ancient way of life. When the fish are threatened, so is their culture.

Tensions here run deep. The partners who work together to fix the fish passages have different interests.

“Last I heard there was 37 different jurisdictions that are involved in the salmon in the Lake Washington basin. That’s pretty substantial,” Mahovlich said.

He admits they all have work to do to try and restore federally listed and threatened species.

One pinch point is the Chinook run that heads northeast toward Redmond and southeast to the pristine Cedar River Watershed, where Seattle gets its drinking water. There’s a dam at Landsburg, a modern facility that still doesn’t always work the way they want it to.

“We’d like to see it a lot better – because they spawn below Landsburg. We do have some go up to the hatchery,” Mahovlich said. “But below Landsburg, it’s urbanized with a lot of dikes and levees. And there’s 21 miles, and 20 of the miles is rip-rap or dikes. And that’s not good for salmon.”

A Bottleneck That's Here To Stay

The hope is to figure out how to create more meandering along the roughly 21-mile run by removing dikes and levees.

“Because that creates a lot better survival for fish when they spawn – and less scouring of the eggs,” Mahovlich said.

But the Ballard Locks are here to stay.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to