Monthly Archives: November 2017

Sockeye Salmon and Humans

Humans prize sockeyes for their firm, beautiful meat. A strong or weak sockeye run can mean the difference between fortune and poverty for commercial fishermen, and sport and subsistence anglers wait eagerly for the sockeyes to return each summer. Not only are sockeyes the ultimate fish to smoke, dry, or freeze, but they are good fighters and fun to catch.

As I mentioned last week, the complex life cycle of a sockeye salmon requires an extensive river/lake system. Sockeyes spawn in the stream or river, and then the fry move into the lake where they feed and grow for one or more years before heading out to sea. This life cycle works best when man does not interfere by building dams, logging, digging mines or developing land near critical salmon spawning and rearing habitat. Unfortunately for the salmon of Bristol Bay, the richest sockeye spawning grounds in the world, the rivers where sockeyes spawn are near one of the largest copper ore deposits in the world. For the past several years, Alaskans have been arguing loudly about the proposed Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay. After I describe the commercial and sport fisheries for sockeyes, I will explain the Pebble Mine debate in more detail.

Commercial Sockeye Fishery

 Sockeyes are the most valuable salmon for commercial fishermen. There aren’t as many sockeyes as pink salmon, but sockeyes are worth more per pound than pinks because their meat is firmer, they freeze better, and they have a richer flavor than other species of salmon. Bristol Bay in southwestern Alaska has the largest commercial sockeye fishery in the world. On average, fishermen catch ten to thirty million sockeyes each year in the region during a short, intense fishery lasting only a few weeks. In 2017, 59 million sockeyes were caught in Bristol Bay, and processors paid fishermen $1.13 per pound. The total sockeye harvest for the state in 2017 was valued at $326 million.

Certain regions of Bristol Bay are particularly productive. In 2017, commercial fishermen in the Nushagak region caught over one million salmon on two separate days. On July 3rd, during a storm and in heavy seas, fishermen landed 1.5 million sockeyes, and several fishing boats sank or became grounded when fishermen battled stormy seas while heavily loaded with fish.

Sport and Subsistence Fisheries

 Sockeyes are important to the economy of Alaska, not only because of the commercial fishery but also due to a growing sport fishery that brings many visitors to the state. One of the most important fisheries to the residents of Alaska, though, is the subsistence harvest. Most subsistence fishing is done with a gillnet.

Sport fishing for sockeyes is an art. Sockeyes eat plankton, so unlike cohos, pink salmon, and king salmon, sockeyes do not aggressively chase a lure. Fishing experts suggest the best way to hook a sockeye is by using a bare hook or a hook with colored yarn tied to it. The angler then catches the fish by either accidentally hooking it in its mouth or by aggravating the salmon with continual casts until the fish snaps at the hook. Once the fish is on the line, it is a strong fighter

 Status and Trends

While salmon stocks in the lower 48 have declined significantly over the past few decades, sockeye salmon stocks in Alaska are doing well. Due to their economic importance, sockeyes are carefully managed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, but in recent years, the proposed Pebble Mine project near Bristol Bay has concerned many Alaskans about the future of the largest sockeye salmon run in the world.

The Pebble Mine is the name of a mineral exploration project hoping to gain the rights to mine a huge copper, gold, and molybdenum mineral deposit in the Bristol Bay region near Lake Iliamna and Lake Clark. This deposit is estimated to be the second largest of its type in the world. Those who support the mine say it will create jobs, provide tax revenue to the state of Alaska, and reduce American dependence on foreign sources of these minerals. Those opposed to the mine, claim it will pollute the Bristol Bay watershed, possibly destroying valuable fish stocks, including sockeye salmon. If that happens, the strong fishing economy already present in the region could collapse, wiping out fishing jobs and income.

Nearly every copper mine in the world has polluted the environment around it by releasing water high in acids and contaminants. Plans for the open-pit Pebble Mine propose to impound contaminated water, waste rock, and mine tailings behind several earthen dams at the mine site. This mine would be situated upstream from the Kvijack River, the river with the single largest sockeye salmon run in the world.

The controversy over the Pebble Mine has been a major issue in Alaska since the mid-2000s. In April 2009, a Native delegation from the Bristol Bay region told the mining company behind the Pebble project that the Bristol Bay watershed was no place for an open-pit mine. The mine was put on hold in 2013 after the loss of funding partners, but it has recently gained the interest of other investors and is now back in the news.

I will be honest; I am opposed to the Pebble Mine, and support for the mine is low in Alaska. Anything that could destroy the pristine environment where millions of sockeye and other salmon return each year to spawn should not, and I hope will not be allowed.

Do you have an opinion about the Pebble Mine? I’d love to hear it!

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Sockeye (Red) Salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka)

Sockeye salmon also called red salmon and sometimes blueback salmon, are larger than pink salmon but average smaller in size than other Pacific Salmon species. Sockeyes measure between 18 and 31 inches (45.7-78.7 cm) in length and weigh between 4 to 15 pounds (1.8-6.8 kg). In their marine phase, sockeyes have iridescent silver sides, a white belly, and a metallic green-blue back. Due to this marine coloration, sockeyes are sometimes called blueback salmon. While they can have fine, black speckles on their backs, they lack the large spots found on other species of Pacific Salmon. The flesh of a sockeye in the marine phase is bright orange and firm. This beautiful, firm flesh with its rich flavor makes sockeyes highly prized and a culinary favorite.

When sockeyes return to their natal streams to spawn, their bodies turn bright red, and their heads become green. They are called red salmon because of this spawning coloration. In addition to changing color when they return to spawn, males develop a humped back, and hooked jaws called a kype. Breeding females are paler in color than males.

Unlike pinks, chums, and cohos that can spawn close to the mouths of small streams, sockeye salmon usually spawn in large, complex river/lake systems. Most sockeyes spawn either in streams connected to lakes or along the lakeshore in areas of upwelling. Because a sockeye requires unimpeded access to a lake to complete its life cycle, it is susceptible to habitat manipulation or degradation. Not only man but also beavers can alter a river system by building dams, effectively blocking a river or stream and denying salmon access to the lake.

The natural range for sockeyes is from the Klamath River in California and Oregon north to Point Hope in Alaska. In the western Pacific, sockeyes range from the Anadyr River in Siberia south to Hokkaido, Japan. Sockeyes are most numerous in the Fraser River system in British Columbia and the Bristol Bay system, including the Kvichak, Naknek, Ugashik, Egegik, and Nushagak rivers. Some populations of sockeyes do not migrate to the ocean but spend their entire lives in freshwater. These landlocked salmon are called kokanee salmon. Kokanees are found from Siberia to Japan on the Asian side of the Pacific and In North America from the Kenai Peninsula to the Deschutes River in Oregon. Kokanees have been widely introduced to lakes in the U.S., including the Great Lakes.

In Alaska, sockeye salmon return from the ocean to spawn from July to October. Like other Pacific Salmon species, sockeyes spawn in the streams where they were born. Some sockeyes spawn in streams not connected to lakes and others spawn near the lakeshore, but most spawn in streams attached to a lake. A female digs a nest in the stream bottom by giving several, powerful strokes of her tail. Once she finishes digging the nest, she rests while a dominant male courts her by nudging her side with his snout and then coming to rest beside her and quivering. The female then drops into the nest, and the male follows, stopping beside her. Both fish arch their bodies, open their mouths and quiver, releasing their eggs and sperm. Other males may also enter the nest and release sperm. The female will continue to dig nests until she has deposited all her eggs. She usually digs three to five nests over the course of three to five days, and she may breed with several dominant males. A female deposits between 500 to 1,000 eggs in a nest and lays a total of 2,500 to 4,300 eggs. A male sockeye may breed with several females, and both male and female sockeyes die within a few weeks after spawning.

Sockeye eggs hatch in the winter, and the young alevins remain in the gravel, gaining nutrition from their yolk sacs until spring when they emerge into the stream. At this stage of their lives, the young sockeyes are called fry and have dark, short, oval parr marks on their sides. Fry move out of the stream and into the lake where they spend one to three years in fresh water, feeding on zooplankton and small crustaceans. As they prepare to leave the lake, sockeyes lose their parr marks and turn silvery. They are now called smolts. Smolts weight only a few ounces when they enter the ocean, but they begin to grow quickly, mostly feeding on plankton, insects, and small crustaceans. A sockeye’s beautiful orange flesh comes from eating plankton and krill in the ocean.

Sockeyes spend one to four years in the ocean where they travel nearly continuously, covering as many as 2300 miles (3700 km) in one year. As it begins the return trip to its spawning stream, a mature sockeye swims even faster, covering 28 to 35 miles (45-56 km) per day during its last two months at sea. Sockeyes are prey for nearly every animal they encounter that is bigger than they are, and they are a valuable species for commercial fishermen.

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Next week, I will cover the commercial and sport fishery for sockeyes as well as the status of sockeye populations and threats to their survival, including the controversial proposed Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay, Alaska.

I would love to hear your opinions and ideas about the Pebble Mine as well as about anything else related to salmon conservation or any of my other posts.

My novel, The Fisherman’s Daughter, is now available for sale at Amazon and other online booksellers, as well as on my page at www.authormasterminds.com

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