Category Archives: Kodiak Wildlife

Wildlife of Kodiak Island including biology, behavior, and news

The History of the Relationship between Humans and Kodiak Bears

According to archaeological evidence, Kodiak Island has been inhabited by humans for the last 7500 years, and bears were already on the island when humans arrived. The earliest human occupants are referred to as the Ocean Bay tradition, and while little is known about the relationship Ocean Bay people had with bears, bear bones have been found in archaeological digs of sites dating from this period, indicating they did hunt bears. Interestingly, though, few bear skulls have been found in excavations of Ocean Bay sites, suggesting that the head may have been left in the field as part of a ceremonial practice or a sign of respect for the animal. If the Ocean Bay culture was similar to other early northern cultures, then it is likely bears were revered and perhaps even viewed as emissaries between man and the spirit world.

The Ocean Bay tradition lasted 4000 years and was replaced by the Kachemak tradition which lasted approximately 3200 years and was gradually replaced, beginning 900 years ago, by Alutiiq (Koniag) society. As time progressed, the human population on Kodiak grew, and conflicts between humans and bears undoubtedly increased as well. Excavations at Koniag village sites uncovered a greater number of bear skulls than were found in more ancient sites, indicating either bears were more heavily hunted, or the humans had abandoned the practices that forbade bringing skulls into the villages.

Russian explorers arrived on Kodiak in the early 1760s, and while the Russians were impressed by the huge bears inhabiting the archipelago, their main interest was harvesting sea otters and shipping the valuable pelts to China. Bears were also hunted, but a bear hide was only worth two percent as much as a sea otter pelt. Once the Russians depleted the sea otter population, they more actively sought out other fur-bearing animals including bears, and between 1821 and 1842, 268 bear hides per year were shipped from the Alaska colonies. In 1867, the United States purchased Alaska from Russia, and the brown bear harvest more than doubled, with an average of 548 hides shipped per year from 1867 to 1880.

Russians brought livestock to Kodiak, and when bears began killing the livestock, especially cattle, they were considered a nuisance to be eliminated. At nearly the same time, more efficient methods of fishing by commercial fishing operations on the island led to a depletion of salmon stocks and created greater competition between humans and bears for the fish. Although the U.S. government never set an official bounty on bears as they did on eagles and Dolly Varden, bears were routinely shot, and some canneries offered private bounties on bears.

The Boone and Crockett Club, a wildlife conservation organization, was formed in 1887, and one of its goals was to work for the preservation of wild game in the United States. Thanks to the efforts of the Boone and Crockett Club, the Game and Wild Bird Preservation and Disposition Act, or the Lacey Act as it is commonly called, was signed into law in 1900. This important law provided the first legal protection for wildlife, including the Kodiak bear, in the U.S.

When exotic big-game hunters learned about the huge bears on Kodiak Island, many journeyed to Kodiak in pursuit of a trophy, and the Kodiak bear gained a reputation as one of the ultimate trophy animals in the world. As interest in guided Kodiak bear hunts increased, the Alaska territorial government set strict limits on commercial hunting and selling of bear hides. In 1925, the Alaska Game Commission required any nonresident hunter in Alaska to be accompanied in the field by a registered big-game guide. In the late 1920s and 1930s, commercial and sport hunting were strictly regulated on Kodiak, while shooting bears to protect cattle was not only encouraged but was government sanctioned.

On August 19th, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8857, creating the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge which encompassed Uganik Island and most of the southwestern portion of Kodiak Island. The purpose of the refuge was to preserve the natural feeding and breeding range of the Kodiak bear and other wildlife.

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, cattle ranchers and those involved in the salmon industry fought for stricter predator-control measures against Kodiak bears, while bear hunters and conservationists from across America voiced loud opinions against the concept of bear control, alarmed that the Kodiak bear could easily be wiped out in a few years. After considering all opinions, the Alaska Game Commission in the late 1950s opted against any form of bear control and did not increase the length of the hunting season on Kodiak.

This interesting, complex relationship between humans and bears continues to this day. I’ll tell you more about this relationship over the next two weeks, beginning with the battle between ranchers and Kodiak bears in the 1960s.

As always, I would love to hear your comments and opinions. If you would like to receive my free newsletter on true murder and mystery from Alaska, sign up on the following form.

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How Do Bears Regulate Their Body Temperature, And What Diseases Do They Get?

 

TEMPERATURE REGULATION

A bear’s body temperature is similar to a human’s and ranges between ninety-eight and ninety-nine degrees Fahrenheit (36.7- 37.2C).  Bears do not have sweat glands, though, and the lack of sweat glands coupled with their insulating fur can make staying cool on a hot, sunny day a challenge. Bears employ a variety of techniques to solve this problem, including resting in the shade, stretching out on their bellies on the cool ground, panting like a dog, sitting or lying in a cold stream or the ocean, sprawling on snow patches, and shaking off water when they emerge from a stream. They are also able to dissipate heat through their paws which are well supplied with blood vessels, and they lose heat through areas with minimal fur such as the face, ears, nose, belly and the insides of the legs. To cool down, bears sometimes recline on the ground and spread their legs wide.

 

DISEASES

Bears are susceptible to a variety of diseases and parasites. Internal parasites include the trichinella worm (trichinosis), trematodes, nematodes, lungworms, hookworms, flukes, blood parasites, intestinal worms, and tapeworms. Tapeworms are especially prevalent in Kodiak bears because they eat large quantities of raw fish. It is not uncommon to see a bear in the summer months with a several-foot-long tapeworm trailing from its anus. Notice the tapeworm in this photo.
Bears can also suffer from many of the same ailments that affect other mammals, including arthritis. Traumatic injuries can be very devastating to a bear, especially if the injuries affect the bear’s ability to procure food or protect himself. Poor teeth can directly impact a bear’s ability to eat, and any factor leading to inadequate fat reserves before hibernation can result in starvation.

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The Kodiak Archipelago is home to 3500 bears and 13,600 humans, so how do the bears and humans interact? Next week,  I’ll tackle the topic of bears and humans.

I invite you to watch my webinar about how I became a published author and the true-life adventures that provide the inspiration for my Alaska wilderness mysteries. Stay until the end of the webinar and receive a free e-book of one of my novels. This is the link : http://bit.ly/2pcCOo6 . Also, please sign up below for my real-life mystery newsletter.

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Kodiak Bear Cubs

A Kodiak bear cub fetus develops for only two-and-one-half months, so the cubs are very underdeveloped when they are born. No other mammals except marsupials have such immature offspring at birth. The cubs weigh 1/400 to 1/1000 of what they will weigh as adults. If the same were true for humans, a grown man might weigh as much as 8000 lbs. Cubs are born at such a premature stage of development because the mother must provide nutrients for her unborn young while she is in hibernation and not eating. She provides these nutrients by breaking down her body protein, which causes her to lose muscle mass. If she carried the cubs longer, she would lose too much muscle mass and would not be able to move by the end of hibernation. While a shorter gestation period produces underdeveloped cubs, the mother maintains enough physical strength to be able to care for her offspring. Cubs continue to develop after they are born.

At birth, brown bear cubs are nearly helpless. They can detect temperature changes and move closer to their mother to seek warmth, and they are also able to find the sow’s nipples to nurse. They weigh about one pound (.5 kg) and are blind, deaf, and unable to smell. They are covered by a fine hair and are toothless, weak, and uncoordinated.

A brown bear sow has three pairs of nipples. She may nurse on her side in the den but normally nurses in a sitting or partially-reclined position after emerging from the den. A bear’s milk contains an average of 33% fat, as compared to human milk which contains 3.5% fat. Bear’s milk consists of 11 to 15% protein and 0.3 to 0.6% carbohydrates. Due to this diet of rich milk, brown bear cubs grow rapidly.

A cub’s eyes open about four weeks after birth, and he begins to walk at six weeks. A Kodiak bear cub’s weight doubles every two months during the first year. The cubs are completely dependent on nursing for 24 weeks and may continue to nurse for as long as 82 weeks.

On Kodiak, most cubs stay with their mothers for three years, and nearly half of all Kodiak bear cubs die before they leave their mothers. Causes of death range from starvation, accidental separation from their mother, deliberate abandonment by their mother, fights with other bears, accidents, and infanticide, most often, but not always, by large boars.

Researchers have postulated that the reason for infanticide, the killing of the young of one’s species, is so the male can eliminate the offspring of another male, bring the female into estrus, mate with her, and pass along his genes to the next generation. While this theory might prove true for some species, it doesn’t make sense for bears. For one thing, bears are seasonal breeders in the spring, but boars often kill cubs in the summer when the female cannot go into estrus again. During the mating season, a boar would have to kill all the cubs in the litter for the mother to go into estrus, and even then, the female would not become sexually receptive for several weeks. Unless he waited around for the sow to be ready to mate again, the boar who killed the cubs probably would not be the bear who eventually mates with the mother. Also, females are sometimes the perpetrators of infanticide.

A friend of mine saw a large male bear walk up to a den, stick his head in the den, pull out a cub, shake it to death, and continue on his way. It is difficult to coordinate the actions of that boar with any biological theory. We humans often feel the need to understand the purpose behind every animal behavior, yet we do many things with little or no purpose in mind.

Next week I’ll write more about bear biology and behavior. Please let me know if you have any questions or comments.

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How Large is a Kodiak Bear’s Home Range?

 

Brown bears are not considered territorial, but they do have home ranges. A home range is a geographical area a bear inhabits over the course of a year. The ranges of separate bears overlap and vary in size depending on several factors. The ranges tend to be smaller in regions with abundant food and where the food supply is near denning habitat. Kodiak bears have smaller home ranges than most other brown bear populations in North America because of the abundant food supply on the island. Males tend to have larger home ranges than females, and home ranges may increase in the fall when there is less food available, and bears are attempting to build their fat reserves for the winter. Home ranges of females on Kodiak average 50 sq. mi. (130 km²), while the ranges of males average 97 sq. mi. (250 km²).

Several scientific studies have been conducted on Kodiak to understand home ranges and the movements of bears relative to salmon runs and food sources. Studies near Karluk Lake show bears move extensively between different drainages and often time their arrival at a particular stream to exactly coincide with the arrival of the salmon run for the stream. This would not be so exceptional if the salmon returned at the same time every year, but the runs often vary by several weeks from year to year.

 

Recent research by Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge biologist William Leacock and his team provided detailed information on the daily movements of radio-collared bears in the Karluk drainage. During 2010 and 2011, this team fitted eight female bears with GPS collars that broadcasted information at one-hour intervals. This information allowed the researchers to track not only the seasonal movement but the daily and even hourly movements of these bears and to coordinate their travels in response to food sources and bedding areas. Some surprising results emerged from this study, and what struck me was how much the movement patterns, home ranges, and bedding habits varied from sow to sow. This study, as well as any, points out that bears, like humans, are individuals and one bear may have a very different behavior pattern from another bear.

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As always, I welcome your comments on this or any other post. I love to hear what you think.

Be sure to watch my webinar about how I became a published author and why I write Alaska wilderness mysteries. I think you will enjoy the beautiful photos taken by my husband Mike and my friend Ryan Augustine. Stay until the end, and you will receive a coupon for a free e-book of one of my novels. The link is: http://bit.ly/2pcCOo6  

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What is the difference between Atlantic and Pacific Salmon?

How are Atlantic and Pacific salmon related, and how do their lifecycles differ?

I’ll start with the obvious answer. Atlantic salmon are originally from the Atlantic Ocean, while Pacific Salmon are from the Pacific Ocean. You probably already knew that, though. Atlantic and Pacific salmon belong to the family Salmonidae, but Pacific salmon belong to the genus Oncorhynchus while Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) are the largest members of the genus Salmo. Atlantic salmon are more closely related to certain species of trout, such as brown trout (Salmo trutta) than they are to Pacific salmon. Atlantic salmon have large, black spots on their gill covers and back.

The lifecycles of natural populations of Atlantic and Pacific salmon are similar. Atlantic salmon spend one to four years in the ocean before returning to spawn in the freshwater stream where they were born. One big difference, though, is Atlantic salmon don’t always die after they spawn. Pacific salmon are semelparous, meaning they die after they spawn. Atlantic salmon are iteroparous which means they may recover, return to the sea, and repeat the migration and spawning pattern. Spawning takes a huge physiological toll on a salmon, though, and most Atlantic salmon do not survive to spawn a second or third time.

Are Atlantic or Pacific salmon healthier to eat?

Controversy swirls over the health benefits of eating Atlantic and Pacific salmon. This debate has nothing to do with wild Atlantic salmon, though. Most salmon sold in the U.S. are farmed Atlantic salmon. Salmon sold as “wild” salmon are Pacific salmon. Sadly, most wild Atlantic salmon stocks were wiped out or severely depleted years ago by over-fishing, but in a few places, these wild stocks are recovering.

What are the health differences between eating a wild or farmed salmon?

Salmon are good for you. Both wild and farmed salmon are high in Omega-3 fatty acids, a fat with many health benefits. Farmed salmon, though, also have other fats that are not as good for humans. A half-pound filet of wild salmon has 281 calories, while a half-pound fillet of farmed salmon contains 412 calories. Farmed salmon is loaded with twice as much fat as wild salmon and three times more saturated fat. Wild salmon pack more calcium, iron, potassium, and zinc and less sodium than farmed salmon. Depending on the farm, farmed salmon may have higher levels of contaminants than wild salmon, but biologists believe farmed salmon are safe to eat.

Most experts agree if you have a choice, eat wild salmon, but farmed salmon are better than no salmon and farmed salmon are more readily available and can be found year-round.

I think the biggest difference to me is taste. Wild Pacific salmon has a rich, robust taste, while farmed salmon often tastes bland.

One of the biggest concerns about farmed salmon for biologists is the salmon will escape their pens and become an invasive species. How these farmed salmon might affect populations of wild salmon, no one knows, but biologists fear farmed salmon that have been fed antibiotics might spread diseases to wild salmon.

In 2017, 300,000 Atlantic salmon escaped from a farm in the San Juan Islands in Puget Sound, Washington, and alarmed Alaska Fish and Game biologists sent out an alert to all anglers to be on the lookout for invasive Atlantic salmon.

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Why Do Salmon Jump And Other Questions

Why do salmon jump?

This is the question our guests most frequently ask about salmon as they watch fish pop out of the water around them. The answer is: no one knows. Some speculate salmon jump to loosen their eggs from the membrane encasing them, but males also jump, so this reasoning doesn’t work. Another explanation is they jump to catch flying insects, but their jumping behavior increases in frequency as they near their spawning stream at the same time their digestive system is shutting down and they stop feeding, so this explanation also is not valid.

I like to tell our guests the salmon they see jumping are teenagers. As a salmon prepares to spawn, its hormones rage and its body changes color and shape. These jumping fish are the equivalent of a human teenager, so they act like teenagers. While this explanation is always good for a laugh, there is no scientific evidence to support it.

My opinion, for what it’s worth (and not much, since there is also no scientific evidence to support this), is salmon have evolved to jump because jumping is beneficial to their survival. Salmon that have inherited the genetic characteristic to jump when they near their home stream are more likely than those who cannot jump to make it upstream and spawn. They then pass along this trait to jump to their offspring. Evolution has selected this jumping trait. Most salmon spawn in small streams and they must navigate shallow water, rapids, and sometimes even waterfalls. If they couldn’t jump, many salmon would never make it to their spawning grounds. Again, this explanation is only my opinion, but I believe it has some merit.

The correct answer to the question, “Why do salmon jump?” is: no one knows.

Do all salmon return to spawn in the same river or stream in which they were born?

No. A small percentage of salmon spawn somewhere other than where they were born. This behavior is called “straying,” and it is adaptive because it allows salmon to colonize streams that do not currently have a salmon population. It also allows salmon to spawn somewhere if the stream where they were born no longer exists. Pink salmon and chum salmon both often spawn close to the mouths of small streams. If these streams are diverted by winter storms, as often happens, the returning salmon will stray to a nearby stream.

When a salmon returns from the ocean, how does it find its spawning stream?

Salmon must navigate a long distance from the open ocean to their spawning stream. Evidence shows they use magnetic cues, the position of the sun, and day length to know when to begin their migration back to their natal stream and how to get there. Once salmon near and enter fresh water, scientists think they use their sense of smell to find not only their home stream or river but the specific tributary or area of the river where they were born. Juvenile salmon imprint on the unique chemical signatures of the waters where they were born and occupied as fry as well as on the waters they migrated through to get to the ocean. When they return to spawn, they follow this chemical smell back to where they were born.

How many salmon eggs hatch, develop, and return as adults to spawn?

Salmon have tough lives. From the egg stage, until they spawn and die, they are a food source for a wide variety of fish, birds, and mammals, including man. Biologists estimate 1 in 1000 eggs will develop, find their way to the ocean, swim back to their natal stream, and spawn. Depending on the species and the age of the fish when she spawns, a female salmon lays between 1000 and 6000 eggs, so the survival rate is not good.

I hope I’ve answered a few of your questions about the amazing Pacific salmon. Next week, I will tackle a big question. What is the difference between Atlantic and Pacific salmon?

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If you haven’t seen my webinar on how I became an author and why I write Alaska wilderness mysteries, this is the link: http://bit.ly/2pcCOo6. If you like it, please share it with your friends. The free book offer is sincere, and there is no catch. Also, please sign up for my free, monthly newsletter about true murder and mystery in Alaska. This month I am writing about the Fairbanks Four. Four young men spent 18 years in prison for a murder they didn’t commit. 

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Which Salmon Is It?

Over the past several weeks, I’ve been writing about Pacific salmon, so this week, I want to pause a minute and review. In their marine phase, the five species of Pacific salmon are hard to tell apart. Their life cycles are similar, and sometimes all five species spawn in the same river/lake system. What are their differences, and how do you tell one species from another?

Perhaps you are thinking, why should I care if I can differentiate between salmon species? Let’s pretend you are fishing in Alaska on a river where all five Pacific salmon species are present. It is legal to keep pink salmon, chums, and cohos, but you must release sockeyes and kings. You catch a beautiful, silvery salmon. You know right away it hasn’t been in fresh water long enough for its color and body shape to change. You also know if it is still silver in color, its flesh will be firm, and it will be good to eat. Is this one of the species you can keep, or must you release this fish?

The size of the fish is a clue, but often, different year classes of a species return to the same river, so size is not definitive. Does the fish have spots, and if so, where and how big? Spots are more visible when a salmon gains its spawning coloration, but if you look closely, the spots are visible in the silvery marine phase. Pink salmon have large, oval spots on the back and both lobes of the tail. Cohos have small black spots on the back and the upper lobe of the tail. Kings have spots on the back and both lobes of the tail. Sockeyes and chums have no spots on their backs or tails.

While you are looking at the tail, do you see any silver streaks? Cohos and kings have silver streaks radiating along the rays of the tail. Chums also have silver streaks but only on half the tail.

The mouth is another distinguishing characteristic. King salmon have a black mouth with a black gum line and a black tongue. Pinks also have a black gum line, but they have a white mouth. The other three species all have white mouths and white gum lines.

A chum salmon has a white tip on the anal fin, an important characteristic to note when trying to differentiate a chum from a sockeye.

Other distinguishing characteristics you can use include the size of the eye, scale size, and the shape of the tail, but none of these are easy to employ unless you are comparing one salmon to another.

Take a look at the salmon you caught. It weighs about four pounds and has spots on the back and both lobes of the tail. You think you see silver streaks in the tail, but you’re not certain, so you check the mouth and note a black gum line and a black mouth. You are allowed to keep the fish if it is a pink,  chum, or silver salmon, but you must release it if it is sockeye or king. Will you be able to grill this salmon for dinner, or should you carefully release it back into the stream?

The size of the fish, and the spots on the back and both lobes of the tail may lead you to jump to the conclusion you caught a pink salmon, and you can keep it. Only pinks and kings have spots on both lobes of the tail, so you can quickly rule out the other three species. The silver streaks in the tail may be hard to see, so you wisely check the mouth. Both pinks and kings have black gum lines, but only king salmon have a black mouth, including a black tongue. Take a closer look at the fish. Are the spots small or are they large and oval? If you said small, you have your answer. You caught a small, probably a mature 3-year-old king salmon, and you must release it.  

It takes practice to identify a silvery Pacific salmon in its marine phase. Commercial fishermen can quickly differentiate one species from another, but if you only occasionally fish for salmon, one silver salmon looks much like the next. If you can’t identify the salmon you caught, you must release it, so if you plan to go salmon fishing in Alaska without a guide, you should do your homework first.

Next week, I’ll write about some of the questions we are commonly asked about salmon, and I will do my best to answer them.

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I am excited to announce the webinar I told you about last week explaining how I became an Alaska wilderness mystery writer and where I get some of my ideas for my novels, has now been released. To see the webinar, follow this link: http://bit.ly/2pcCOo6. I used many of Mike’s photos and my friend, Ryan Augustine’s photos and videos in the webinar, so I think you will enjoy it. Please share the webinar link with your friends and family. If you stay until the end, you can get a free e-book of one of my novels. The purpose of the webinar is to introduce myself and my books to a wider audience, so the more you share this link, the happier I will be! Thank you!

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What Happened to the Big King Salmon?

Les Anderson landed the largest king salmon ever caught in the Kenai River on May 17th, 1985. Les and a friend were fishing from his boat when he hooked into the monster at 7:00 am, and the rest is a legend. Les and his friend battled the salmon for an hour chasing it up and down the river. Les fell once in the bottom of the boat, and when they finally got the fish near the side of the boat, the net was too small, so they had to tow the salmon to shore and beach it. After all that, Les put the huge salmon in the bottom of the boat while the men continued to fish. Once they were done fishing, Les left the fish in the back of his pickup until 2:00 pm when friends finally convinced him to weigh it. The giant weighed 97 lbs. 4 oz. (44 kg), and many people believe it would have topped 100 lbs. (45.4 kg) if Les had weighed immediately after he caught it.

While Les Anderson’s fish was the largest documented king ever caught in the Kenai, 60-to-80-lb. (27.2-36.2 kg) kings were commonly caught in the river during the 1980s and 90s. Since 2003, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) has required that all king salmon greater than 55 inches (139.7 cm) be sealed by ADF&G within three days of the time they are caught. In the last nine years, only one king salmon over 55 inches has been sealed by the department. This fish was 55.5 (141 cm) inches long and weighed 71.1 lbs. (32.3 kg).

What happened to the huge king salmon in the Kenai and other rivers, and more importantly, why are fewer kings returning to spawn in many areas? In the early 1900s, before the Grand Coulee Dam was built, king salmon weighing more than 100 lbs. (45.4 kg) were frequently harvested from the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest. Today, kings from the Columbia River average 20 lbs. (9.1 kg). The largest commercially caught king in Alaska was a 126 pounder (57.2 kg) caught in 1949 in a fish trap near Petersburg in Southeast Alaska. Nothing close to that size has been documented since then. Over the past few years, ADF&G has issued emergency fishing closures for numerous king salmon rivers in the state, including the Kuskokwim River in Southwestern Alaska, the Kenai and other rivers in Southcentral Alaska, and rivers in Southeastern Alaska. Biologists are concerned because not enough king salmon are returning to spawn.

What’s happening to the king salmon? There is no shortage of answers to this question. A fisheries professor from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks believes salmon sharks may partially be responsible for the decline, and while he offers evidence that salmon sharks do eat king salmon, it’s hard to understand how sharks could cause the decline of one salmon species but not the others.

Here are some of the other reasons offered for the decline of king salmon runs.

  1. Commercial set-netters and seiners kill too many kings while trying to catch other salmon.
  2. Draggers fishing on the high seas are wiping out the king salmon. Draggers kill as many as 3.4 king salmon per metric ton of pollock caught. Since draggers take over a million tons of pollock each year, as many as 3.4 million king salmon are possibly caught and dumped by this fishery each year.
  3. Professional sport-fishing guides target and kill too many kings, and because their clients are after the big kings, they have altered the gene pool by catching the big kings before they can spawn. This phenomenon is called fishery-induced evolution.
  4. Bank erosion and high bacteria levels caused by too many fishermen standing on the bank or stepping in the river have damaged king spawning areas.
  5. Our oceans are changing, so fewer kings survive their time at sea.
  6. There is no issue. King salmon stocks are as healthy as they ever were, and there is no reason for the ADF&G closures.

I think most people would disagree with #6. There is a problem, and while it is always easy and preferable to point the finger at someone else, I think the blame can be spread among the other five options. We have simply loved our king salmon to death. In the 1980s and 90s, more than 100 sport boats per day trolled for kings in salt water near the Kenai River. More than 500 drift gillnetters deployed nets in Cook Inlet, 450 set-netters strung their nets near the mouth of the Kenai River. Personal-use and subsistence fishermen set their nets, and personal-use dip-netters flocked to the mouths of the Kenai and Kasilof. Dip-netters alone harvested between 500 and 1500 kings a year. In 1989, 160 sportfishing guides were registered to guide on the Kenai. By 1997, 354 guides worked the Kenai, and by 2006, the number of guides had risen to 396. Add in the scores of fishermen who line the shores of the river every year, and it is a wonder any king salmon survives this gauntlet to spawn.

An ADF&G study in 1988 determined more than 90% of the entire early-run of king salmon on the Kenai had been caught at least once before reaching their spawning grounds, and some had been caught two or three times by sport anglers. Catch-and-release restrictions are sometimes enforced in areas where biologists are concerned about king runs, but how many of these fish die after they are released? Salmon returning to fresh water are already stressed. They have stopped eating and are undergoing major physiological changes as they prepare to spawn. The amount of energy they must exert while fighting a fisherman and the stress they undergo while the fisherman releases them can kill them before they can spawn.

There is no one easy answer to what we must do to protect Alaska’s king salmon. The solution will require ADF&G, commercial fishermen from every industry, sportfishing guides, and the public to work together. Can we do it? Time will tell.

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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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