As salmon leap, so do our spirits

The Sonics? Leaving. The viaduct? Crumbling. The Mariners? Struggling. The monorail? Incorrigibly, still not running.

This is Seattle's summer of discontent. At times it seems our once best-kept secret of a city has permanently lost its mojo. If not its identity. But the other day I caught a thrilling glimpse of it again. It darted in dark green and silvery flashes, at a rate of 12 per minute, through a 2-foot watery sluiceway in Ballard.

Everything else may be down, but the fish are up. In numbers that have even skeptical biologists cracking smiles, this summer our salmon are back.

Sockeye salmon have swarmed in droves this month past Shilshole, up the 21 steps of the Ballard Locks fish ladder and into lakes Union and Washington.

About 400,000 sockeye have already arrived in the city. Only half that many were expected. It will likely be the biggest run in a decade for what is the largest annual sockeye migration in the lower 48.

Mysteriously, the fish began pouring into the city later than usual. Just when we needed a lift.

Yet mostly it's tourists, and, this weekend, fishermen, who are paying much attention.

Seeing salmon massing upstream near the end of their odyssey is uplifting enough. Only one in 100 makes the full four-year round trip from stream bed and back. Last week along the ship canal you could see schools of them darting and jumping, some with chunk-sized wounds from the bites of hungry seals.

This salmon run is even more special. The fish swim relentlessly into the teeth of the place they are most unwelcome, the city. Then most of them go on to lay eggs in the Cedar River's gravel, spawning the wild way.

It's the largest wild fish run though the heart of a major metropolitan area in the United States, and perhaps the world.

So much wildness surging through the city has the feel of a miracle to it.

"It's inspiring to watch them struggle through here every year," says Mike Schrumm, who was counting sockeye the other day at the Locks. He works for the Muckleshoot Tribe.

"Going through this kind of urban environment, they put up with a lot of crap. They probably shouldn't be doing this well. But somehow they are."

It's also worth celebrating because it hasn't always been this way. In the early '90s biologists thought this sockeye run might vanish. One year only 34,000 sockeye came home. The fear was that waste oil, sewers, asphalt, fertilizers and all the other big-city foes of salmon would push the decimated run into a death spiral.

This year, more sockeye than that — 36,319 — stormed the Locks in a single day.

"It was insane," Schrumm says about that day, July 17. "They were coming so thick and fast there was no way to get a real accurate count. We were estimating."

I asked a biologist, the city of Seattle's Rand Little, to explain. Why so many salmon?

"Serendipity?" he said.

He's only partly joking. What we know about the health of each year's sockeye run is dwarfed by what we don't know.

He guessed that habitat-protection efforts on the Cedar River are helping, as well as better river-flow management and a temporary hatchery.

He also cautioned that not all the news is rosy. Baby sockeye aren't surviving well in Lake Washington, and nobody knows why. The other local runs of salmon — chinook, coho, steelhead — remain in mortal danger.

"You may think sockeye are doing great by looking at the size of the run this summer, but we're not out of the woods yet," Little said.

Don't get too exuberant, he's saying. OK, maybe I've gone fish-crazy. Because I'm going to be happy about it anyway.

The reason is that salmon are more vital to our civic identity than any of that other stuff we've been worrying so much about lately.

Local writer Tim Egan once defined the Northwest as "anywhere a salmon can get to." Fifteen years ago, people seriously wondered whether Seattle would be crossed off that symbolic map.

Yet this weekend, 30,000 fishermen are sitting on boats smack in the middle of a region that's supposedly wretchedly overcrowded and polluted. They're hooking tens of thousands of darting, flopping, healthy wild salmon.

Maybe it won't last. No doubt we should do more to help our signature fish.

But, for now, it does a Seattleite's spirit good to know we're still living in the Northwest.

Danny Westneat's column appears Thursday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or