Seeing Salmon at the Ballard Locks

Written by on September 16, 2016 in Fish, Technology
Aerial view of the Locks. Photo credit: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Aerial view of the Locks. Photo credit: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, more commonly called the Ballard Locks, connect Lake Washington and Lake Union with Puget Sound. They were constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and were completed in 1917. They were built to maintain the water level of Lakes Washington and Union at 20-22 feet above sea level while allowing boats to move easily between these levels. The locks also prevent Puget Sound seawater from mixing with the fresh water in the lakes.

Recreational and commercial vessels, ranging in size from kayaks to 760 foot long ships, travel through the locks. They are let in one side and, once closed in, the water level drops 20+ feet to meet the Sound on the other side. The Ballard Locks see more boat traffic than any other lock in the U.S and are listed on National Register of Historic Places and the American Society of Civil Engineers Historic Civil Engineering Landmarks.

View of the locks. Photo credit: Dave Farah.

View of the locks. Photo credit: Dave Farah.

Seeing ships pass through the locks was cool, but that’s not why I went there. I went to see salmon because the Locks are also home to a fish ladder with 21 steps and several windows where visitors can watch salmon climb (er…swim).

Salmon viewing area. Photo credit: Dave Farah.

Salmon viewing area. Photo credit: Dave Farah.

The ladder is used by adult salmon (here it’s mostly Chinook, coho, sockeye, and steelhead) returning to freshwater to spawn, and later by young salmon heading out to the ocean soon after hatching.

I was there earlier this summer when Chinook salmon were estimated to be passing through at a steady rate of about 300 per day. Check it out:

A video posted by Dave Farah (@davefarah) on

If you’re ever in the area, be sure to stop by! There’s also a great visitor center with tons of information on salmon and the locks, and beautiful gardens to wander through. The best viewing times vary for each species:Chinook: July – November, peak at the end of August

  • Chinook: July – November, peak at the end of August
  • Coho: August – November, peak end of September
  • Sockeye: June – October, peak in July

Fun fact: fish ladders aren’t the only option for transporting fish around obstacles…have you ever heard of the salmon cannon??

Copyright © 2016 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of MarineScienceToday.com. She holds marine science and biology degrees from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a Master of Advanced Studies degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. When she's not writing about marine science, she's probably running around outside or playing with her dog. .

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