Each fall for countless generations, adult salmon travel hundreds of miles through the ocean focused on finding a local stream to mate and spawn.
Local viewers can look for returning salmon along North Creek in Bothell from September through November or along Cottage Lake Creek and Bear Creek in September and October.
Lake Washington salmon have been counted each year since 1972 as they enter freshwater at the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks -- also known as the Ballard Locks -- on Seattle's Lake Washington Ship Canal before returning to local King County waterways. Last year marked the lowest sockeye salmon count with just 17,411 fish in 2019. This year was the third-lowest return on record, according to data from the county.
“The returning salmon were counted at the Ballard Locks through September and a population estimate is made, but how many fish and where they show up on the spawning grounds is being determined right now by surveyors like myself,” Woodinville resident Catherine Morello said. “It is a cooperative effort with many different agencies.”
Morello conducts spawning surveys for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife in the Lake Washington basin, which includes Cedar River, North Creek, Bear Creek, Little Bear Creek and other local streams. Due to COVID-19, she said more landowners and salmon watchers have observed the spawning season this year than in previous years.
“I think people are home much more this year and are seeing more fish than they usually do,” she said. “It's fun to have something new and good to talk and get excited about with our difficult times.”
Morello said September showed an abundance of returning chinook salmon, followed by sockeye in October. Chinook are just finishing up spawning now and sockeye should continue through October, but that population has been very low in recent years, she added.
“One interesting thing we have noticed is that last round of rain came at a good time for the Chinook, allowing them to swim farther up into the streams to places we don't always see them,” Morello said.
In November, the annual salmon run will wind down with the return of coho and chum. As part of the natural lifecycle of these fish, they die soon after spawning and decompose to fertilize the streams.
Morello said returning numbers of salmon vary each year between creeks in the area and species of salmonid fish. One creek, such as Cottage Creek, could have a good number of returning chinook, while the Cedar River might have a lower than average year. Either way, both waterways are considered part of the Lake Washington basin, she added.
The percentage of returning salmon also depends on two types of origin: hatchery and natural. Morello said hatchery-origin fish generally return through the Sammamish River to Issaquah Creek, however many stray into Bear or Cottage creeks on the way. Some even venture out south to the Cedar River. Natural-origin salmon, from parents that spawned in a creek or river, can appear anywhere, she said.