Monthly Archives: December 2017

Fishing for King (Chinook) Salmon

Last week, I mentioned that king (Chinook) salmon are the least abundant of the five Alaska salmon species, but their presence, or more accurately, absence, in the last several years has greatly impacted commercial, sport, and subsistence fishermen. Biologists quickly shut down fisheries in areas where they determine an inadequate number of king salmon have returned to spawn and maintain a healthy population. These closures not only affect sport anglers hoping to land a huge king, but they impact commercial and subsistence fishermen pursuing sockeye and other salmon species. Kings usually spawn in large river systems, the same systems sockeyes favor. When a fishery is closed to protect king salmon, gill-net fishermen and seiners are restricted from fishing in the area since their gear cannot differentiate between salmon species. Next week, I will go into more detail about the controversies swirling around king salmon, but this week I want to explain the different fisheries and even tell you a little about aquaculture for king salmon.

Commercial Fishing for King Salmon

 The king salmon return is small relative to other salmon species, but kings are worth a good deal per pound for commercial fishermen. In 2017 fishermen were paid an average of $5.86 per pound for kings. According to the state, commercial fishermen harvested 251,141 king salmon, worth $17.8 million in 2017.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) shut down commercial and sport fishing for kings in Southeastern Alaska on August 10th, 2017 when data indicated a record-low return of kings for the area. Commercial fishing for kings in Southeastern Alaska is primarily done by trolling. ADF&G opens the area to commercial trolling for kings in July and again in August, but with the poor return of king salmon to the area, ADF&G decided to cancel the August opening.

In other parts of Alaska, king salmon are not individually targeted but are caught in gill nets and purse seines with other salmon species. Even though kings return in relatively small numbers, there is an excellent market for kings because of their large size, rich flavor, and high levels of omega-3 fatty acids.]

I mentioned last week that 3% of all king salmon have white meat instead of red meat. Except for color, there is no difference in the chemical composition of the meat between white and red kings, but red-fleshed kings are more valuable because they look better to the consumer.

Sport and Subsistence Fishing for King Salmon

Anglers consider king salmon one of the ultimate game fish, and people flock to Alaska from all over the world for the thrill of fighting one of these monsters on a rod and reel or with fly gear. The main drawback for king salmon anglers is that relatively few rivers in the state have king salmon runs, and there are few areas on these rivers easily accessible to humans. Also, sockeyes and cohos spawn in the same rivers used by kings, so anglers targeting cohos and sockeyes also descend upon these same few fishing spots. As a result, king salmon fishing in Alaska is often called “combat fishing” with hundreds of anglers lining the banks of the river while sport fishing guides troll the river in front of them. Some folks enjoy the thrill of the combat-fishing drama, but this type of fishing cannot be considered relaxing and peaceful.

Combat fishing is famous on the Kenai and Russian Rivers on the Kenai Peninsula. Every summer, Central Peninsula General Hospital in Soldotna removes an average of 200 fishing lures from anglers who have been hooked by other fishermen. Etiquette rules exist for combat fishing, including yelling, “Fish on!” to let nearby anglers know you have a fish. Neighboring anglers are then supposed to reel in their lines and let you land your salmon as quickly as possible.

Trolling with rigged herring is the favorite method of fishing for kings in salt water. Most freshwater anglers use lures or salmon eggs. From 1989 to 2006, the annual Alaska sport-fish harvest of kings averaged 170,000 fish. Both a fishing license and a king salmon stamp are required to fish for kings, making it a lucrative fishery for the state.

An average of 167,000 king salmon are caught annually by subsistence fishermen. Subsistence fishermen can use a gill net, seine, long line or other methods defined by the Board of Fisheries.

Aquaculture for King Salmon

 While king salmon are not reared in pens in the United States, they are reared and sold in New Zealand and Chile. Half of the global production of king salmon comes from New Zealand, and half of New Zealand’s production is exported, mostly to Japan and other Pacific Rim countries, including Australia. Most farmed kings are raised until they weigh 6.6 to 8.8 lbs. (3-4 kg) before they are harvested.

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Next week, I will cover the controversy swirling around king salmon. Why aren’t kings as big or as plentiful as they used to be?

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King (Chinook) Salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha)

King salmon, also called Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) are the largest Pacific salmon, and they are also the least abundant of the Pacific salmon species. Adult kings average 24 to 36 inches (61 to 91 cm) in length but may be as long as 58 inches (150 cm). They average 10 to 50 lbs. (4.5 to 22.7 kg) but sometimes grow much larger. The world record sport-caught king, caught on May 17th,1985 in the Kenai River in Alaska, weighed 92.25 lbs. (44.11 kg.), and the largest king salmon caught by a commercial fisherman weighed 126 lbs. (57 kg). This fish was caught near Rivers Inlet, British Columbia in the 1970s.

King salmon can be distinguished from other Pacific salmon species by the black spots present on their head and on both the upper and lower lobes of the tail and by their black gums. In their marine phase, kings are dark green to blue on the top of the head and back and silver to white on the sides, belly, and tail. When they return to fresh water to breed, they turn olive brown, red, or purple in color. Males are more brightly colored than females. In the ocean, kings are torpedo-shaped with a heavy mid-section and a blunt nose. During their breeding phase, males develop a hooked nose and enlarged teeth. Fry can be identified by well-developed parr marks extending below the lateral line. When they become smolt and are headed for the ocean, they have bright, silver sides, and the parr marks recede to above the lateral line.

In North America, king salmon range from Monterey Bay in California to the Chukchi Sea in Alaska. On the Asian coast, kings occur from the Anadyr River in Siberia to Hokkaido, Japan. In Alaska, they are most abundant in the Yukon, Kuskokwim, Nushagak, Susitna, Kenai, Copper, Alsek, Taku, and Susitna Rivers. Kings have been introduced to many areas, including the Great Lakes of North America, Patagonia, and New Zealand. King salmon are raised in pens in New Zealand and are an important export for the country.

King salmon spawn in fewer rivers than other Pacific salmon because they require larger, deeper rivers and spawn only in areas with good water flow through the gravel. They migrate from the ocean back to their birth streams in the winter and early spring, and while some enter fresh water as early as May, most enter streams in late June or early July. Most Alaska rivers receive only a single run of kings each year. Usually, those entering the streams first are the ones that will travel the furthest. Yukon River kings may travel more than 2000 miles (3219 km) to the headwaters of the Yukon River to spawn.

When a female king arrives in the spawning area, she selects a spot for her nest. She swims to the bottom of the stream, turns on her side and gives several powerful thrusts with her tail to remove gravel from the stream bottom. She continues to dig, resting occasionally, until she has a long, deep nest. While she is digging her nest, she drives off any other females that approach but pays little attention to the males. She is usually accompanied by a dominant male and one or two subordinate males. The dominant male, and occasionally one of the subordinate males, drive off any other male intruders. The males do not help with the nest digging, but the dominant male may court the female by resting beside her and quivering or by swimming over her and touching her dorsal fin with his body and fins.

When the nest is finished, the female drops into it followed by the dominant male and sometimes one or more of the subordinate males. The fish open their mouths, quiver, and release their eggs and sperm. The female then swims to the upstream end of the nest and begins digging a second nest, covering the eggs in the first nest with the gravel she unearths for the second nest. She continues digging four or five nests or more over the next several days and lays between 3,000 and 14,000 eggs. Even after all her eggs are laid, she continues digging in a haphazard manner until she weakens and dies. The male may mate with another female, but he also will soon die.

In Alaska, king salmon eggs hatch in the late winter or early spring, depending both on when they were laid and the temperature of the water. The hatchlings are called alevins, and they live in the gravel for several weeks, receiving nutrition from their attached yolk sac. Two to three weeks later, the young fry, as they are now called, wiggle up through the gravel and begin to feed on their own. Fry in fresh water feed on plankton and insects. Some kings, called “ocean-type,” migrate to saltwater during their first year. “Stream-type” kings remain in fresh water for one or even two years. In Alaska, most kings remain in fresh water one year and then migrate to the ocean as smolts the following spring.

In the ocean, king salmon eat herring, pilchard, sandlance, squid, crustaceans, and other organisms. They are voracious feeders, and they grow rapidly in the ocean, often doubling their weight in just one summer. Most king salmon have pink or red meat, but 3% of all kings have white meat. In Southeast Alaska, as many as 40% of the kings in some runs have white flesh. Biologists are unsure whether the variable meat color is due to genetics or to what the fish eat.

Kings become sexually mature anywhere from their second to their seventh year, so they vary greatly in size when they return to spawn. A mature three-year-old king, called a “jack,” would weigh less than four pounds (1.8 kg) while a mature seven-year-old would probably weigh more than fifty pounds (22.7 kg). Males mature earlier than females, so most jacks are males, and in many spawning runs, males outnumber females in all but the six-and-seven-year age groups.

King salmon are considered relatively uncommon but not rare in Alaska, but in some rivers their numbers have dropped drastically in the past few years. Over the next two weeks, I’ll write about the various fisheries for kings and the controversies swirling around them.

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