Salmon — whether being tossed between Pike Place Market fish mongers or wending their way through the locks in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood — are one the most iconic images of the Pacific Northwest.
They’re also one of the most threatened.
Since at least the 1980s, steelhead and certain salmon populations have been tanking in Puget Sound. Local steelhead alone have plummeted to less than 10 percent of their historic population size. But many people are unaware that the area’s beloved fish are in such dire straits.
Survive the Sound is a new interactive game that hopes to both educate the public about the salmons’ plight and help save the fish by raising money for essential research and environmental restoration.
“Without salmon, there is no Northwest, there is no Puget Sound and there is no home,” said Michael Schmidt, deputy director of Long Live the Kings, a nonprofit working to protect chinook or “king” salmon, and related fish. The group created Survive the Sound in partnership with Paul Allen’s Vulcan.
The game has participants sponsor an actual steelhead that has been tagged with a tracking device and is trying to make the roughly 140-mile journey from a local river through Puget Sound to the ocean. Steelhead are a close cousin to other salmon species, sharing the same genus in the fish family tree.
The trip is nothing short of death defying. Along the way, the fish must avoid being gobbled up by Harbor seals or picked off by cormorants, withstand parasitic snails that carry salmon-killing diseases, and navigate obstacles including the Hood Canal Bridge.
Players contribute $25 to back the fish of their choice, or they can donate more and assemble a school of steelhead. The 12-day “race” from the river to the ocean begins on May 8. Players will track their steelhead’s progress and speed through regular updates and by following along on a map. You can enter the contest by registering here.
In the wild, steelhead and other salmon hatch from eggs deposited in rivers and streams, live in freshwater for a while, then migrate through Puget Sound to the ocean. After a certain period, the adult fish return from the ocean to spawn in their original rivers. But in recent decades, an alarmingly low number of steelhead, chinook and coho are surviving their journey through the marine environment. For steelhead, fewer than 20 percent of the fish even make it through Puget Sound and to the Pacific.
“We’ve got a real problem with marine survival,” said Jacques White, executive director of Long Live the Kings.
To better understand the fishes’ journey and pinpoint when and where they’re dying, researchers trap juvenile steelhead or “smolts” as they are making their way downstream to Puget Sound. The scientists anesthetize the juvenile fish, insert a small acoustic signaling device in their belly, and sew them back up.
The fish being tracked in the game are from the Nisqually River in south Puget Sound or the Skokomish River, which feeds into the Hood Canal. Throughout Puget Sound’s main basin, Hood Canal and the Strait of Juan de Fuca there are hundreds of underwater listening devices that can detect and locate the tagged steelhead from more than 600 feet away. The technology is called acoustic telemetry and is used to track all sorts of marine life.
At the end of the race, players will be awarded for sponsoring the fastest fish, for assembling the largest school and for the school with the most survivors. Players who sponsor fish by April 5 are entered into a raffle to win a trip to Alderbrook Resort on Hood Canal.
Players select their contenders from a pool of 48 steelhead that have been given anthropomorphized identities.
There are “punny” options including a Mariners baseball-inspired “Itchy Roe” and an ailing “Salmon Ella” — which seems unlikely to be a popular pick. Northwest nods include a “Venti” steelhead that’s decorated with a Starbucks-like coffee sleeve and a “Mackerel” reminiscent of Seattle rap artist Macklemore. And given the project’s connection to Vulcan and Allen, who owns the Seahawks, four of the steelhead are football themed.
The Survive the Sound game is part of an overarching salmon research and recovery effort called the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project. The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation last year awarded a three-year, $750,000 grant to the project, which includes more than 60 Canadian and American nonprofits, government agencies, tribal interests and others.
Vulcan also provided a range of technical help launching Survive the Sound. Their support included website design of the user interface and experience, consultation on the feasibility and scope of the project, branding, and design of the data-visualization map.
“I love the clever names and it’s been incredibly fun watching the illustrations bring out the personalities of 48 different fish,” said Karen Heileson, a senior visual designer for Vulcan, by email.
“It’s been amazing to see how fast this contest came together,” said Chris Jones, a Vulcan software engineering manager. “The ‘Coder’ is the fish I sponsored, of course.”
Game players can select a steelhead to sponsor until May 7. Organizers are pleased so far by the level of interest they’re seeing — including some good-natured rivalries that are emerging among players.
“Some people are starting to trash talk outside of the formal bounds of the project,” White said.
The use of acoustic telemetry to track steelhead is well-tested, having been repeatedly deployed in Puget Sound over the past decade.
The underwater acoustic receivers are approximately the size and shape of 1 ½ metal Nalgene water bottles stacked on top of each other. The signaling tags are better suited to steelhead, as opposed to chinook or coho, because the fish are much larger when they leave freshwater as smolts, measuring about 8 to 9 inches. Chinook are less than 3 inches at that stage. The tags used for tracking are about the size of the last joint in your little finger.
When multiple receivers simultaneously detect a tag, the scientist can triangulate the fish’s location based on the relative intensity of each signal.
The researchers can’t collect the data and process it in real time. So they’ve randomly selected data for 48 fish released last year and are running that for the contest. The scientists are releasing a new generation of steelhead this spring, with the plan to run the game again next year.
“Through Survive the Sound, we are trying to access and engage the general public in ways that keeps their attention for longer than 30 seconds, in ways that play off of and cater to our Northwest tech vibe, and in ways that are just plain fun and not so ominous,” said Schmidt, of Long Live the Kings, by email.
“We are trying to say, ‘You, at your desk, in your car, at home enjoying your coffee … you should care too!’”