Category Archives: Kodiak Wildlife

Wildlife of Kodiak Island including biology, behavior, and news

Frequently Asked Questions About Pacific Halibut


I had planned to wrap up my series of blog posts on halibut last week, but then I realized I’d left unanswered questions, including some of the questions our guests most frequently ask us about halibut. Last week, I attempted to explain the complicated system and the agencies involved in regulating both the commercial and sports fisheries for halibut, so I’ll stay away from regulations here. If you would like to know more about halibut fishing regulations, let me know.

How old is my halibut?

It is very difficult to age a halibut by looking at it. Females grow much faster and larger than males, so a 40 inch (102 cm), 30 lb.(13.6 kg) male might be 20 years old, while a female that size could be as young as six-years-old. Growth rates also vary widely between individuals of the same sex. Scientists age halibut by counting the growth rings laid down on the otolith, a bony structure in halibut’s inner ear. The rings on an otolith are counted in the same manner a tree’s rings are counted to determine the age of a tree. Research has determined most halibut landed by a sports fishermen average between five and 15 years.

Is my halibut a male or female?

A halibut’s gonads are found at the bottom of the gut cavity. If the halibut is a female, the ovaries are triangular, hollow sacs that have a light pink tint. The testes in males appear solid and rubbery and are gray.

How much meat will I get from a 50-lb fish?

You should recover 50 to 60% of the total weight of the fish as edible meat. A 50-lb. (22.7 kg) fish will produce 25 to 30 lbs. (11.4 kg – 13.6 kg) of beautiful, boneless fillets.

What is a chalky halibut?

Sometimes the meat of a halibut, especially a smaller halibut, will appear opaque white instead of translucent when it is filleted. While this chalky meat may taste slightly drier than opaque meat, there is nothing wrong with the meat. Chalkiness is caused by a build-up of lactic acid in the flesh when the halibut over-exerts itself while it is fighting as the fisherman hauls it to the surface. Warmer water temperatures also seem to be a factor in causing increased lactic acid in the fish. In Alaska, 5% of all halibut caught are chalky.

How well do halibut survive catch and release?

Unlike rockfish or cod, halibut do not have an air bladder, or swim bladder, which expands from changes in water pressure, so halibut do not suffer as much when brought to the surface. Research has found that sport-caught halibut handled gently have a 95% survival rate.

My halibut turned to mush when I cooked it. What did I do wrong?

Oops! It may have looked like a small halibut, but you probably caught an arrowtooth flounder. Arrowtooth flounder are dusky colored on the “white” side, have larger scales than a halibut, and needle-like teeth in their long mouth. These flounder have an enzyme that when activated by heat, makes their flesh dissolve.

___________________________________________________________________________

That’s all I have on Pacific halibut, but I would love to hear questions and comments from you. Next, I will tackle Pacific salmon, but first, next week, I need to tell you about my spring and summer. This has not been the best year for me, but I hope by writing about it, I can turn things around so my end-of-the-year post will be about how great the last few months of 2017 were!

You can always cheer me up by signing up below for my free, monthly newsletter about true crime in Alaska. This month, my newsletter tells the story of a woman murdered by a car bomb in downtown Anchorage and the war her brother waged against the man he was certain had murdered her.

Mystery Newsletter

Sign Up for my free, monthly Mystery Newsletter about true crime in Alaska.

Sport Fishing for Halibut and Who Manages Halibut Fishing in Alaska

 

Sport Fishing for Halibut:

Before 1973, sport halibut fishing was only legal when the commercial halibut season was open, but because there were few sport halibut anglers, this regulation was rarely enforced. As the sport fishery grew, the International Pacific Halibut Commission officially recognized it and established regulations for sport fishing in 1973. In 1975, anglers in Alaska harvested an estimated 10,000 lbs. of halibut. Since then, the sport fish take has continually increased, reaching over 8 million pounds today. Most sport fishing for halibut takes place in Southeast and South Central Alaska.

Sport-caught halibut average between 15 to 20 lbs. (6.8 – 9.1 kg) in weight, but anglers often catch much larger fish. The current Alaska state record for a sport-caught halibut is 459 lbs. (208 kg). Most anglers fish for halibut with bait such as herring, squid, octopus, or cod. Fishing for halibut is usually done off shore, and since most sport anglers visiting Alaska do not have access to a seaworthy boat, they must use a charter-sport-fishing service. The charter industry has grown rapidly in Alaska in recent years, and fishery managers now estimate the charter fishery accounts for 60 to 70% of the Alaska sport harvest. Along with this growth in the charter industry, regulations for charter boat owners have increased. In 2011, a limited entry system was implemented for the charter boat fleet. Regulations to further limit the number of pounds taken by the charter boat industry have been added nearly every year since 2011. By 2017, charter boats are not allowed to let their fishermen retain halibut two days of the week, and on the other days, a fishermen on a charter boat can retain only one halibut over 28 inches (71.2 cm) and may keep one halibut 28 inches (71.2 cm). or smaller.

Who Regulates Halibut Harvests in Alaska:

In 1923, when biologists realized halibut stocks were declining from over-fishing, the U.S. and Canada signed a treaty, creating the International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC). In 1924, the Commission implemented a three-month, winter closure for commercial halibut fishing. The IPHC is responsible for assessing the status of halibut stocks and for setting catch limits and harvest strategies to provide an optimum yield. In the United States, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) divides the halibut resource between users and user groups in Alaska. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) develops and enforces regulations regarding the management of halibut fisheries in U.S. waters. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) Commissioner has a seat on the NPFMC, and the ADF&G licenses anglers and sport fishing businesses and guides and monitors and reports on sport and subsistence harvests. The ADF&G also helps federal agencies with the preparation of regulatory analyses. Whew! Are you confused yet?

The IPHC conducts most of the research on halibut. The IPHC uses annual longline surveys to monitor halibut abundance and the sex and size structure of the population. The IPHC also studies halibut migrations and movements as well as spawning and other behavior. The IPHC then incorporates the findings from its studies into stock assessment models to estimate abundance and evaluate harvest strategies.

The IPHC and the NMFS monitor commercial halibut harvests, while the State of Alaska monitors recreational harvests. On our charter boat, we must fill out a daily log book listing the number of halibut each angler catches and record how many each kept and how many each released.

Both commercial fishermen and charter boat captains pressure the IPHC and the other entities who help set quotas and other regulations for halibut fishing. Neither commercial fishermen nor charter boat captains feel the other group faces strict enough regulations, and both groups feel regulations are too strict for them. We all hope halibut abundance rebounds to previous levels.
___________________________________________________________________________

I decided next week to write one more blog post about halibut to answer some of the questions we are frequently asked by halibut fishermen. We just had our first group of serious fishermen this summer at our lodge, and I spent the week answering halibut questions, so they are fresh in my mind.

If you haven’t already done so, sign up for my free, monthly newsletter about true crime in Alaska. My August newsletter tells the story of a man who settled a custody battle with his ex-wife by blowing up her car with her in it in downtown Anchorage.

Mystery Newsletter

Sign Up for my free, monthly Mystery Newsletter about true crime in Alaska.

Commercial Halibut Fishing

Commercial halibut fishing is big business in Alaska. Halibut are valuable fish to humans because they are mild, good tasting, and have a white flesh. They are popular with sports fishermen because not only do they taste good but they are good fighters and grow very large. A halibut’s meat can be kept without refrigeration for a long period which made them an excellent target for commercial fishermen in the late 1800s. Today, halibut is considered a delicacy and often sells for $20 or more a pound in stores in the lower 48, making it a valuable source of income for commercial fishermen who target the species. Commercial and sports fishing for halibut are thriving industries in Alaska, and it is not an easy job to monitor halibut populations and allocate quotas to commercial fishermen, sport-fishing guides, private sports fishermen, and subsistence fishermen.

This week, I will describe how commercial fishing for halibut is done, how many pounds of halibut are caught per year, and how halibut fishing and fishing regulations have changed over the years. Next week, I will discuss techniques used to sport catch halibut and the regulations in the charter sportfishing business. I will also attempt to explain the different entities who set and implement halibut regulations in the state. Creating halibut regulations that are fair to all user groups is a complicated, frequently disputed, process. Tensions are often high between commercial and sports fisherman targeting the same species, and nowhere is this conflict more evident than between commercial and sports halibut fishermen.

Commercial fishing for halibut began in 1888 off the southern end of Vancouver Island, along the Canadian coast, and in Southeast Alaska. In the early years of the industry, fishermen caught halibut from small dories and then delivered their catch to large sailing vessels or steamships. As commercial halibut fishing became more popular, smaller schooners ranging from 60-100 ft. (18.3-30.5 m) were used. These schooners were specifically designed for halibut fishing and carried crews of five to eight men. Today, commercial halibut boats come in a variety of shapes and sizes and are usually boats that can be used in other fisheries, such as salmon seining or crabbing.

Commercial halibut fishing is done by longline. Halibut gear consists of units of leaded ground line in lengths of 100 fathoms ( 600 ft. or 183 m). These units of ground line are called “skates.” Hooks are attached to separate lines called “gangens,” and gangens are snapped or tied onto a skate. Each skate has about 100 hooks attached to it, and each hook is baited with fish or octopus. A “set” consists of one or more baited skates tied together and laid on the ocean bottom with anchors at each end. A floating line with a buoy is attached to each end of the set. Once fishermen deploy a set, they may let it soak for anywhere for two to 20 hours before pulling it.

Annual commercial halibut catches in Alaska hit 69 million pounds in 1915 but fell to 44 million pounds in 1931. Stricter fishing regulations helped the industry rebound, and in 1962, commercial fishermen harvested over 70 million pounds of halibut. Halibut catches then began to fall precipitously to a low of only 21 million pounds in the late 1970s. The harvest then again began to steadily rise to 70 million pounds per year by the late 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s. The commercial catch has been decreasing ever since then.

Commercial halibut fishing was not effectively regulated until 1995. Before 1995, the commercial season often consisted of one or two 24-hour or 48-hour openings per year, and there was no limited entry. Anyone could fish from any vessel for halibut during an opening. Many fishermen loved this “race for the fish,” but not only was it impossible for The Alaska Department of Fish and Game to regulate how many pounds of halibut were caught during an opening, but the fishery became dangerous. Bad weather and treacherous seas during a halibut opening claimed many lives of fishermen using small boats in extreme ocean conditions. Since the fishery sometimes went nonstop for 48 hours, fishing crews became exhausted, causing some fishermen to make careless, life-threatening mistakes they would not normally make.

Since 1995, the commercial halibut industry in Alaska has been managed under an Individual Fishery Quota (IFQ) system. Based on catches from previous years, commercial fishermen were allotted IFQs. The number of halibut allowed per IFQ fluctuates depending on the health of the halibut population. IFQs can be bought and sold and are now quite valuable. The IFQ system was originally unpopular with many commercial fishermen, but it has resulted in longer seasons and safer boats fishing in better conditions. Also, since fishermen can catch their IFQ limits any time of the year when the season is open, fresh halibut is now available eight months out of the year.

__________________________________________________________________________

I’ll be back with sports fishing for halibut next week. Since I am a sport-fishing guide, I can’t wait to tell you about my industry!

I know I mention this every week, but please sign up below for my free mystery newsletter about true crime in Alaska. My August newsletter will detail the murder of a woman who slid behind the wheel of her Volvo in downtown Anchorage and died instantly when a violent blast exploded her car.

Mystery Newsletter

Sign Up for my free, monthly Mystery Newsletter about true crime in Alaska.

Pacific Halibut (Hippoglossus stenolepis)

Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game Photo

Halibut are related to flounders and other flatfish. Pacific halibut are the largest members of the Family Pleuronectidae.  They are found near the continental shelf in the northern Pacific Ocean and range from California north to the Chukchi Sea and from the Gulf of Anadyr, Russia south to Hokkaido, Japan. Halibut live on or near the bottom of the ocean and prefer water temperatures ranging from 37.4 to 46.4 degrees Fahrenheit (3⁰ to 8⁰C).

Halibut and their relatives are flattened laterally and swim sideways with both eyes on one side of the body. They have diamond-shaped bodies and are more elongated than most flat fishes. The width of the fish is approximately one-third its length. A halibut’s scales are small and are embedded in the skin, making the fish feel smooth to the touch. The top side of a halibut’s body is gray to olive- brown or nearly black and is mottled with numerous spots, allowing the fish to blend in with a sandy or muddy bottom and providing it camouflage from predators and prey. The bottom side of a halibut is white. The eyes of a halibut are on the dark side of the fish. Nearly all halibut are right-eyed which means the eyes are on the upper, dark side or the right side of the fish. Approximately one in 20,000 halibut is left-eyed with the eyes and dark pigment on the left side of the body. The dorsal fin extends from near the eyes to the base of the tail, and the anal fin begins just behind the anus and ends at nearly the same point opposite the dorsal fin. The mouth extends to the middle of the lower eye, and the tail is broad and symmetrical and lacks a fork. The lateral line arches high over the pectoral fin and is a characteristic that easily distinguishes a halibut from an arrowtooth flounder, a species that looks much like a halibut but has a nearly straight lateral line. Pacific halibut can reach 8 ft. (2.4 m) in length and weigh more than 500 lbs. (230 kg).

Most male halibut are sexually mature at age eight, while females begin to mature when they are 12 years old. They reproduce at depths of 300 to 1500 ft. (91 -457 m), and spawning takes place in the winter from November through March. Males randomly release sperm while females release eggs, and fertilization happens by chance. A female halibut may release a few thousand to four million eggs, depending on the size of the fish. Fertilized eggs hatch in approximately 15 days, and the larvae drift with the deep ocean currents. In the Gulf of Alaska, the larvae drift in a counter clockwise direction along the coast. As the larvae mature, they rise in the water column until they ride the surface currents to shallower coastal waters. When they hatch, larvae swim in an upright position with eyes on both sides of their head. When they are approximately an inch long, the left eye migrates over the snout to the right side of the head, and the color on the left side fades to white. When they are six months old, halibut settle onto the sea floor, where the dark coloration on the side with their eyes helps camouflage them.

Young Pacific halibut are very migratory and migrate in a clockwise direction throughout the Gulf of Alaska. As they age, halibut tend to become less migratory, but mature fish do migrate to deeper water in the winter to spawn and to shallower water in the summer to feed.

Halibut feed on plankton during their first year, and juveniles between the ages of one and three years old eat euphausiids (krill) and small fish. As they grow, halibut become more dependent on fish, and larger halibut eat herring, sand lance, capelin cod, pollock, sablefish, rockfish, flounders, and smaller halibut. They also eat octopus, clams, and crabs. Halibut usually sit on the bottom, but they will swim up in the water column to feed on salmon. A halibut will eat nearly any fish or organism it can catch.

Female halibut grow faster and reach a much larger size than male halibut. Males rarely grow larger than three feet in length (1 m) and weigh a maximum of 60 lbs. (27 kg), while females may reach over 6 ft. (2 m) in length and weigh over 500 lbs. (230 kg). Halibut growth rates vary depending on location, food availability and other conditions. As they grow longer, their weight increases, but the relationship between length and weight is not linear. The relationship between total length (L, in inches) and weight (W, in pounds) for all species of fish can be expressed by the equation: W=cLb. The constant “b” is close to 3.0 for all species of fish, but the constant “c” varies among species. For halibut, c = 0.00018872 and b = 3.24. By applying this equation, a 58-inch-long (150 cm) halibut weighs approximately 100 lbs. (45 kg).

According to scientific research, the size of Pacific halibut at a particular age has changed over time. The average length and weight of halibut in every age class increased from the 1920s to the 1970s but has decreased since then. For example, 12-year-old halibut are now three-quarters the length and one-half the weight they were in the 1980s. The reasons for these changes in size over time are unknown, but possible causes include competition with other species or with other halibut, climate effects on growth or survival, or effects of fishing and size limits.

The oldest recorded male and female halibut were 55 years old.  Except for man, adult halibut have few natural predators. They are sometimes eaten by marine mammals and sharks, but they are rarely eaten by other fish.

_________________________________________________________________________

Next week, I will describe commercial and sport fishing for halibut in Alaska, and I will attempt to explain how halibut is managed.

If you are interested in true crime tales from Alaska, sign up below for my free, monthly newsletter.

Mystery Newsletter

Sign Up for my free, monthly Mystery Newsletter about true crime in Alaska.

 

 

Fish

I admit I love fish. I grew up in Kansas, and every summer, my family took a vacation somewhere. I always wanted to go to the ocean. I learned to snorkel and SCUBA dive, so I could escape the noisy world and enjoy the peace beneath the surface of the ocean where I would drift and watch the beautiful reef fish. I studied marine biology as an undergraduate and received a master’s degree in fish and wildlife biology, with the emphasis on “fish.” I am telling you this to explain how excited I am about my next series of posts because they are all about fish!

Every time I put on my face mask and fins and jump in the water, I have an  identification card or book on hand, so when I get back to shore, I can identify any fish I didn’t recognize. These charts are great, and I can usually find laminated ones I can get wet. The problem with identification charts and books, though, is they never provide enough information. I want to know the fish’s life cycle, its food habits, and where it fits in the complex coral reef ecosystem. I want to know more about it than just its name.

When I decided to write about North Pacific fish in Alaskan waters, I knew I wanted to start with the Pacific halibut. The halibut is an economically valuable species both to commercial and sport fishermen in Alaska, so I thought there had to be a book about Pacific halibut biology, habits, migration, and distribution, but I could find no such book. There are books on halibut fishing, and I have a book about halibut management, but I want to know about the fish, not about how it’s caught or its commercial significance. I felt as if I was looking at an identification card. I could identify and name the fish, but I wanted more.

With the help of Google, I’ve gathered bits and pieces about halibut biology from the Internet and from my fish books, and next week, I will tell you what I have learned. After halibut, I will tackle salmon and a few other important commercial and sport species. My husband informed me that not everyone is as enamored with fish as I am, so I promise not to overdose you on the subject. We’ve just started our summer bear-viewing and sport fishing season, so I will occasionally interrupt my fish posts to write about our adventures.

I will close this post with a photo of the sweet, little fawn I saw in our yard a few days ago. It is a definite “ahh” moment.

Oh yes, and if you are interested in reading true crime stories from Alaska, sign up below for my free, monthly newsletter.

Mystery Newsletter

Sign Up for my free, monthly Mystery Newsletter about true crime in Alaska.

Sea Star Wasting Syndrome

Sea Star Wasting Syndrome

I mentioned last week in my post about sea stars that beaches on Kodiak teem with an abundant variety of brightly colored sea stars. Sadly, though, sea stars are not as abundant here as they were a few years ago. I took a walk on the beach yesterday and was alarmed by how few sea stars I saw. Those I did see looked healthy, but the vast majority were wiped out by a deadly virus.

 In June 2013, sea stars along the Pacific coast of the United States began dying in large numbers. Die-offs of sea stars have occurred before in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s but never of this magnitude. Within just three years, millions of sea stars from California to Alaska died from a disease called sea star wasting syndrome (SSWS). Sea stars with SSWS develop white lesions in the ectoderm quickly followed by decay of tissue surrounding the lesions which leads to fragmentation of the body and death. Biologists estimated 95% of some sea star populations were decimated by SSWS. While most species of sea stars were affected by SSWS, ochre stars (Pisaster ochraceus) and sunflower stars (Pycnopodia helianthoides) were especially hard hit.

 The syndrome was first noticed in ochre stars in June 2013 along the coast of Washington state. In August 2013, divers reported a massive die-off of sunflower stars just north of Vancouver, British Columbia. In October and November 2013, large numbers of dead sea stars were noted in Monterrey, California, and by mid-December, SSWS had reached southern California. In the summer of 2014, the disease had spread to Mexico and parts of Oregon. SSWS was first reported in Alaska in Kachemak Bay in 2014, but it wasn’t until 2015 and 2016 that sea stars began dying in large numbers in Alaska.

 Biologists are certain sea stars are dying from a virus, but when they isolated the virus, they realized this virus was present in preserved museum samples taken from as far back in the 1940s. They believe some other factor such as increased water temperature or a change in pH is stressing seas stars and allowing an otherwise dormant virus to rage through their populations. Researchers noted an increase in ocean water temperature preceded the outbreak of SSWS, and in areas where the water temperature rose the most, the disease was more widespread. To test the theory that increased water temperature played a big role in the breakout of the disease, scientists placed sea stars in aquarium tanks ranging in temperature from 54 degrees to 66 degrees Fahrenheit. The results were clear, the hotter the tank, the more quickly the sea stars succumbed to wasting.

The drastic reduction in sea star populations is evident on Kodiak Island, and biologists worry how the loss of sea stars will affect the intertidal community. Sea stars are considered a keystone species, important to maintaining diversity in the marine environment. Sea stars eat mussels and sea urchins whose numbers could now explode and decrease biodiversity in intertidal and subtidal communities.

 Scientists consider the recent outbreak of SSWS the single largest, most geographically widespread disease ever recorded, and as ocean temperatures keep rising, they fear the outbreak of the disease will continue.

As always, if you would like to sign up to receive my free, monthly newsletter about true crime in Alaska, you can do that here.

Mystery Newsletter

Sign Up for my free, monthly Mystery Newsletter about true crime in Alaska.

Sea Stars of Alaska

Photo by Mary Schwarzhans

Visitors to our lodge are often surprised by the large number of brightly colored sea stars inhabiting the low-tide zone on Kodiak Island. Sea stars are prolific throughout the Pacific Northwest and are critical to the health of intertidal and subtidal communities. Scientists have identified more than 120 species of sea stars in Alaska, including the sunflower sea star, one of the largest sea stars in the world.

Sunflower Sea Star

Sea stars are often called starfish, but since they aren’t fish, biologists prefer the name sea star. Sea stars belong to the phylum Echinodermata. Other echinoderms include sea cucumbers, sea urchins, sand dollars, and brittle stars. Echinoderms usually have pentamerous radial symmetry, meaning the body can be divided into five parts around a central axis. This five-parted symmetry is easy to see in a sea star with five arms, but it is also apparent if you look at the bottom of a sand dollar or the pen of a sea urchin. Some sea stars have more than five arms. A sunflower sea star has twenty arms, but the animal is still divided into five equal parts around the central disk.

Sea Stars are flattened in appearance and may range in size from 1 inch (2.54 cm) to over a yard (1 meter) in width. A sea star has an internal skeleton which is somewhat flexible. The skeleton consists of small calcareous plates bound together with connective tissue. Sea stars may look rigid and sedentary, but the connective tissue between the plates allows them to bend to attack prey, flee predators, and right themselves when they are turned upside down.

Madreporite
Photo by Mary Schwarzhans

A sea star’s anus is in the center of the top side, or the aboral surface of the animal. A circular madreporite is located just off center on the aboral surface, and this madreporite is a critical part of the circulation system of the sea star. Instead of a circulatory system, a sea star has a water vascular system, and the madreporite acts as a trap door through which water can move in and out in a controlled manner. The mouth of a sea star is located in the center of its underneath or oral surface. Open furrows containing tube feet extend from the mouth along the length of each leg.

Sea stars do not have eyes, but they have eyespots that can detect light at the tip of each arm. Interestingly, scientific studies have shown some species of sea stars move toward light while others move away from the light. Neurosensory cells which are sensitive to both touch and chemical tastes cover the surface of a sea star and are particularly dense in the suckers of the tube feet. Many species of sea stars are covered by clusters of tiny, calcareous pincers. These tiny pincers deter predators and keep the surface of the sea star free of parasites and debris. Also on the surface, thin-walled gills protrude between the calcareous plates and serve to exchange respiratory gases and excrete liquid wastes.

Oral Surface

The internal anatomy of a sea star includes the water vascular system, digestive tract, reproductive organs, and nervous system. The water vascular system uses muscles and hydraulics to power a sea star’s tube feet. The tube feet not only allow a sea star to move but are used to grasp prey, and the combined force of numerous tube feet is strong enough to pry apart a clam shell. Most seas stars move very slowly, and their pace is measured in inches per hour, but giant sunflower sea stars can travel at a speed of two feet per minute.

The mouth of a sea star opens into two stomachs connected to paired, lobed organs called pyloric caeca. The pyloric caeca extend into each arm and aid in the digestion of food. Sea stars are either male or female, and their reproductive organs, or gonads, lie between the pyloric caeca in each arm. In the spring, sea stars broadcast either eggs or sperm through pores in their arms into the water where chance fertilization occurs. Sea stars have no brain or central nervous system, but they have a nerve ring in the central disk connected to radial nerves running the length of each arm. The radial nerves are connected to a diffuse network of nerve cells scattered throughout the skin. Sea stars have the ability to regenerate lost arms.

Sea stars utilize a range of habitats and may be found from the shoreline to depths greater than 13,450 ft. (4,100 m). Sea stars consume a wide variety of prey, including sponges, snails, clams, mussels, sea cucumbers, barnacles, anemones, scallops, fishes, and even other sea stars. Some species of sea stars feed on plankton, while other species prefer dead organisms. Sea stars have few predators and are believed to have a lifespan of only a few years.

Next week, I will post about sea star wasting syndrome, a devastating disease that has killed millions of sea stars in the last few years from California to Alaska.

If you would like to receive my free monthly newsletter detailing stories of true crime from Alaska, you can sign up here.

Mystery Newsletter

Sign Up for my free, monthly Mystery Newsletter about true crime in Alaska.

 

 

 

 

 

What Do Kodiak Bears Eat?

 

One of the main reasons Kodiak bears grow so much larger than inland grizzly bears is due to the abundance of food on Kodiak. Not only can bears feast on protein-rich salmon in the summer, but the archipelago is loaded with nutritious vegetation and sugar-packed berries. A brown bear’s jaws have powerful muscles and teeth that have evolved to adapt to an omnivorous diet of both plants and animals. Kodiak bears are opportunistic feeders. They eat roots, berries, grasses, sedges, wildflowers, wild celery, and other plants, as well as rodents, insects, large mammals (including deer and mountain goats), fish, carrion, and yes, unfortunately, garbage and pet food.

 Bears’ stomachs contract during hibernation, and when they first leave their dens, they aren’t hungry. They eat little at first, concentrating on emerging plants and their roots. As the spring progresses, Kodiak bears can be seen feeding in grassy meadows and look much like grazing cattle. Their diet switches to salmon in the summer months, when they chase and catch fish in shallow streams or on the tidal flats near the heads of the deep, narrow bays on Kodiak. Bears also consume dead salmon that have washed up on shore. When the salmonberries, elderberries, crowberries, blueberries and other berries begin to ripen on Kodiak in late July and August, most bears spend at least part of their day in berry thickets, pulling the berries from the bushes with their lips and mouths. Salmon provide bears with fat and protein, and berries are high in natural sugars, all of which are important for building up a fat reserve for hibernation. As fall progresses, bears increase their consumption of salmon and berries as they strive to build up their fat layer before entering the den for hibernation. A diet rich in berries has its downside, though. Bears are one of the few wild animals susceptible to tooth decay. Abscessed teeth are not uncommon, and rotten teeth may affect the bear’s ability to eat and may even lead to starvation.

 One of the most enjoyable aspects of bear viewing is watching a bear chase and catch a salmon. Sows teach their cubs how to fish and will often corral a salmon toward the cub in shallow water and then encourage the cub to chase the fish. A sow with newborn cubs that are still nursing will only allow her cubs to eat a small part of her catch after she has had her fill because she needs the extra protein to produce the milk to nurse her cubs, and the cubs are receiving most of their nutrition from her. As the cubs age, they nurse less, and the sow shares more of her catch with them. Finally, when they are old enough, she encourages them to fish on their own, and by the time the cubs are two years old, they can usually chase and catch a few salmon without the help of their mother.

Fishing is a skill bears learn with much practice over time, so young bears are often clumsy fishermen. A sub-adult bear may gallop back and forth in a stream for thirty minutes without successfully landing a salmon, while an older bear walks slowly downstream and pounces on a passing salmon with little effort. A bear may also develop his own unique fishing technique. One bear may sit on a fallen log hanging low over a stream and attempt to grab fish as they swim past. A second bear may “submarine” by dunking his head under water to watch for fish, and a third may obtain his fish by chasing another bear and stealing that bear’s catch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Kodiak Bear’s Fur and Claws

  FUR

A Kodiak bear’s coat may range from dark brown to nearly blonde.  Bears are typically darker in the fall when they begin growing their winter coat, and older bears are often darker than younger bears, but these are just generalizations.  One cub from a litter may be light, while his brother is dark brown.

 Cubs often have a natal collar, a white band around the neck and shoulder.  Some cubs have no natal collar, and others have a collar that is bright and distinct.  This band gradually fades over time, and it has usually disappeared by the age of three, but occasionally, you will see a four-or-five-year-old bear that still has remnants of a collar.

 A bear’s fur is an excellent insulator.  It is dense and oily, keeping the bear warm and preventing water from penetrating.  The fur consists of two types of hair, the “guard hair” and the “under-fur.”  Bears shed both the guard hair and underfur annually.  In the summer, Kodiak bears often appear shaggy and matted.  The bear in the photo below looks as if she is sporting dreadlocks.  To help remove their fur, bears rub against trees and rocks, often standing on their hind legs, backing up to a tree and rubbing up and down.  It is humorous to watch a bear “scratch his back” in this manner.  While the old coat is shedding, a new coat is growing, and by September on Kodiak, most bears appear darker in color and well-groomed.  The old, loose fur is gone, and only the new fur remains.

 

CLAWS

Brown bears have non-retractable claws up to four-inches long.  The claws of young bears are typically dark brown and then lighten with age.  Although some young bears have light-colored claws, beautiful, pearly-white claws are usually seen on an old sow or boar.  Look at the photos and notice the difference in claw coloration between the sub-adult bear and the old sow.

Brown bears use their claws to defend themselves and fight with other bears, but Kodiak bears primarily use their claws to dig for roots and other food and gripping food.  Even though their claws look large and clumsy to us, they are quite dexterous and capable of manipulating small objects. Kodiak cubs use their claws to climb trees, but adult brown bears are poor climbers due to their body weight and the structure of their claws.  It is not uncommon to see a sow send her small cubs up a tree if she senses danger, and they stay in the tree until she vocalizes the signal that it is safe for them to come down.

What Senses do Kodiak Bears Use Most?

Bears, like all animals, depend on their senses to survive.  They use their senses for many things, but especially to find food and detect possible threats. A bear’s sense of smell is its most important sense.  A brown bear’s sense of smell is three to four times more sensitive than that of an average dog, and it is difficult for humans with our relatively poor sense of smell to comprehend what this means and how much a bear depends on this sense.  A bear uses his nose to find food, locate a mate, and avoid danger.  A bear downwind from you may smell your presence and run from you while you are still several hundred yards away from him.

A bear’s second most important sense is hearing.  Brown bears have relatively small ears, but they can detect noises at a great distance.  A bear can hear the click of a camera shutter over the sound of the wind, crashing waves, or a swiftly running river.

     For a long time, biologists believed bears had poor eyesight, but scientific research has shown a bear’s eyesight is similar to that of a human’s.  Bears are not nearsighted as was once believed, and they can see colors. Brown bears often stand on their hind legs to increase their sight distance and get a better look at an object.  It is not a sign of aggression when a bear stands on its hind legs; the bear is just trying to gain more sensory input.

 

The important thing to remember is a bear does not use each one of these senses independent of the others.  If a bear sees something unfamiliar in the distance, such as a person, a boat, or even another bear, he may stand on his hind legs to get a better look, raise his nose to attempt to smell the interloper, and pick up his ears to try to ascertain unfamiliar sounds.  If he still cannot determine what the object is, he may approach it for a closer look or circle downwind from the object so that he can smell it better.

Next week, I’ll write about a bear’s fur and claws.  Does a bear’s fur change with age?  Why are some Kodiak bears blonde and others a chocolate-colored?  What is the white ring some cubs have around their neck?  How do the claws change with age?

If you haven’t signed up yet for my free monthly newsletter, don’t wait.  You won’t want to miss this month’s newsletter about crime and justice during the Alaska Gold Rush written by Alaska historian and author Steven Levi.