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Seattle Industry Online is published by the Manufacturing Industrial Council of Seattle

Ballard Locks - Ultimate Fish Ladder

Posted: Summer, 2005


The status of the Alaska Seattle seafood connection is illustrated by two facts available through the Alaska State Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission.

1. Of the 9,000 boats permitted to fish in Alaska, 1,000 are based in Washington.

2. While accounting for just over 10% of the boats, Washington vessels account for 60% of the Alaska catch.


These related facts are of national significance when it comes to the entire US seafood industry because the Alaska catch accounts for almost 60% of all US seafood exports, and 60% of that 60% is accounted for by people who root for the Huskies or the Cougars.

This point was one of many driven home in June during a tugboat cruise of the Lake Washington Ship Canal for John Paul Woodley, Jr., a President Bush appointee to the post of Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Army for Civil Works.

Woodley came to Seattle in response to concerns about proposed cuts in the operating budget for the US Army Corps of Engineers. The proposed cuts could take $2 million from the budget for the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, leading to a steep reduction in lock operating hours.

The proposed cuts were based on a federal formula for determining the national economic significance of some 300 locks that are operated around the country by the Corps of Engineers. The formula is based almost solely on the amount of cargo tonnage that moves through a lock. On that score, the Ballard locks don’t rank highly.

The purpose of the tugboat tour was to show Woodley, along with staff for the Washington State Congressional delegation, that the economic value of the Ballard Locks needs to be measured based on their support role for the US seafood industry and interstate commerce between Washington and Alaska.

Nobody keeps track of which towns or cities Washington fishing boats are based in, but you can make a pretty good case that the largest single group of those boats is moored on the freshwater side of the Ballard Locks, where the balmy weather, calm water, and abundant business support services provide a home port for a significant portion of the Alaskan fishing fleet. Even if the southern tip of Alaska is 900 miles to the north, the locks are sort of a giant fish ladder that permits boats to repair to one of the kindest, gentlest moorages on the West Coast between fishing runs, escaping the severe weather of the Alaskan fishing grounds.

The freshwater side of the locks also includes the home base for a number of major tugboat companies that serve Alaska. The locks also provide access for emergency fire boats and Coast Guard vessels that need to move between Lake Washington and Puget Sound.

After seeing it all in person, Woodley left with a pledge that he would try to amend the federal formula so the economic value of the Ballard Locks will be recognized, a change that might help ward off future budget cut proposals. Woodley said he knew of no other lock in the nation that provides similar functions. “The Lake Washington Ship Canal is entirely different,” he told the Seattle Times.

A few days after the tour, US Senator Patty Murray announced that she’s lined up the votes necessary to restore the cuts and at least for now it appears the locks will remain open for business around the clock.

The tour was conducted on the Pacific Titan, an oceangoing tug owned by Western Towboat. The Titan is one of 15 tugboats built by Western Towboat at its base on the ship canal.

The tour was narrated by Warren Aakervik, president of the Ballard District Council, Peter Phillips, president of the Seattle Marine Business Coalition and Seattle Port Commissioner Alec Fisken.