Category Archives: Kodiak Wildlife

Wildlife of Kodiak Island including biology, behavior, and news

Chum Salmon (Oncorhynchus keta)


Chum salmon (Oncorhynchus keta) are the most widely distributed Pacific Salmon species and can be found throughout Alaska. They range along the east and west coasts of the North Pacific Ocean, from the Mackenzie and Anderson Rivers in Canada to the Lena River in Russia.

Chums are often called dog salmon, but experts disagree about the origin of this nickname. Some believe chums are called dogs because, in the Arctic, Northwestern, and Interior parts of Alaska, chums were and still are traditionally dried and used as a winter food supply for both humans and dogs. Others argue they are called dog salmon because of the enlarged “canine” teeth the males develop during the spawning season.

Chum salmon are the second-largest Pacific Salmon species. Only Chinook (King Salmon) grow bigger. An average adult chum salmon weighs between 8 and 15 lbs. (3.6 to 6.8 kg), but they can grow as large as 45lbs. (20 kg). During their marine phase, chums are dark metallic blue on the back and silver on the sides and belly. Tiny dark specks may be present, but chums do not have large spots like those on Chinook, coho, and pink salmon. The tail of a chum salmon is highly forked, lacks spots, and has silver streaks along the fin rays.

When chums enter fresh water on the return to their spawning streams, males darken to what is often described as a calico pattern. They turn a dark olive brown and have red to purple, wavy, vertical stripes. They also develop hooked jaws called a kype lined with large, sharp teeth. Females turn brown and have a dark, thick, horizontal bar running along the lateral line. Females also develop a hooked jaw with large teeth, but the jaw is less pronounced than it is in males.

There are two, distinct races of chum salmon that spawn at different times. Summer chums spawn in early to mid-summer, and fall chums, as their name suggests, spawn later in the autumn. Chum salmon usually spawn at the mouth or in the lower sections of a stream or river, but in large river systems, they may travel as far as 2000 miles (3219 km) upriver to spawn.

When spawning, a female chum digs a nest in the gravel of the streambed. She then deposits her eggs in the nest while one or more males release sperm to fertilize the eggs. The female may dig more nests upstream from the first nest, depositing her eggs in the nests until her eggs are gone. A group of nests is called a redd, and a female guards her redd until she becomes weak and dies.

Chum salmon eggs hatch after three to four months. The alevin that emerges from the egg remains in the gravel, receiving nutrients from its yolk sac for 60 to 90 days. When it emerges, a chum salmon fry is dark greenish-brown on the back and iridescent green below the lateral line. It also has 8-12 vertical, spaced parr marks on the upper half of its body, not extending below the lateral line.

Fry begin migrating downstream to the ocean within a few days to a few weeks after emergence when they are only one to two inches long. Young chums spend several months near shore before traveling to the open ocean. They stay in the ocean three to four years where they grow to a size of 8 to 15 lbs. (3.6-6.8 kg) or larger. They grow the fastest during their last year in the ocean. Like other Pacific Salmon, chums return to spawn in the stream or river where they were born, and after spawning, they die.

Juvenile chum salmon eat crustaceans, insects, and young herring. Adults feed on copepods, tunicates, mollusks, and fish. When adults return to fresh water to spawn, they stop eating, and their digestive tract deteriorates.

Chum salmon rank second to pink salmon in average annual catch in Alaska’s commercial fishery. Chum-salmon meat is commercially the least valued of the salmon species, and commercial fishermen are paid less or the same for chums as they are for pink salmon. Chum-salmon eggs, though, are the largest and most valuable of any salmon eggs and are sold in Japan as ikura salmon caviar. Chums are not usually targeted by sports anglers because they rarely aggressively attack a lure.

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The Pink Salmon Return

 

The pink salmon return to Kodiak was huge this summer, boosting the local economy, providing food for animals ranging from seagulls to killer whales, and offering a fish and wildlife lover like me a thrill.

I consider the life cycle of a Pacific salmon to be one of nature’s most fascinating enigmas, and I often wonder how a fish evolved such a complicated existence. Salmon face so many perils in their short lives; I’m amazed any of them manage to make it back to their birth streams to spawn.

Salmon lay their eggs in the late summer or early fall, just before the rainiest part of the year here on Kodiak. We often have rain for several days in a row in September and October, swelling the small streams and rivers to more than twice their natural size. The force of this excess water rushing downstream can wash the eggs from their nests before they have a chance to hatch. The flooding may also cause the river to change course, and when the flooding subsides, salmon nests that were previously underwater might now lie in a dry streambed.

A harsh winter can freeze the lower parts of a steam, killing the eggs or the small alevins after they hatch. Ice can also scour a river, taking salmon eggs with it as it moves downstream to the ocean.

Once a fry emerges from the gravel of the streambed, it is a tasty morsel for nearly any fish bigger than it is. It must sneak downstream at night and huddle with other young salmon nearshore in the ocean while it grows and readies itself for a trip to sea.

As a salmon grows larger, its chances for survival improve, and in the open ocean, it has fewer predators. Once a salmon begins its migration back to shore toward its home stream to spawn, though, everything wants to eat it. A pink salmon must dodge seals, porpoises, sea lions, sharks, killer whales, halibut, eagles, bears, humans, and other predators. It is not uncommon for us to catch a salmon while sport fishing and find the fish has marks on it from a commercial fishing net or a seal bite. I always feel bad for a fish that has escaped a net or a seal only to be caught by us.

While a salmon swims this gauntlet of predators on its return to spawn in its birth stream, it is undergoing incredible physiological transformations. Its color and shape changes, its kidneys must adapt from a saltwater environment to a freshwater stream, and it stops eating while its digestive system degrades. During the last few weeks of its life when it enters its natal stream to spawn, the salmon must draw on its stored energy reserves. After it spawns, its organs shut down, and the salmon dies a slow, ugly death.

I look at a salmon in the river in the fall. It is often covered with fungus and is so weak it can no longer swim against the current. While it is a sad sight, I can’t help but admire the fish. It made it home to spawn. It may not look like it, but this salmon is a survivor!

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Commercial and Sport Fishing for Pink Salmon


Commercial canning and salting of pink salmon began in the 1880s, but until WWI, pink salmon were not economically important for commercial use in North America. Demands during the war, though, led to a dramatic growth in the industry. In the first half of the twentieth century, commercial fishermen used fixed and floating fish traps to harvest pink salmon. These traps were so efficient, they nearly wiped out some runs, and the number of pink salmon in Alaska waters declined dramatically in the 1940s and 1950s. Fish traps were banned when Alaska became a state in 1959.

Today, pink salmon populations in Alaska are considered stable and well-managed. Most commercial fishermen now use either purse seines or gill nets to catch salmon. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) monitors the escapement of pink salmon by estimating the number of salmon that have entered their spawning streams. ADF&G opens and closes the commercial fishery until they are certain enough salmon have made it into the streams to spawn and maintain a stable population. Once they feel the streams have their escapement, they allow the commercial season to remain open until all the salmon have passed.

While ADF&G can monitor the commercial fishermen, they have little or no control over other factors affecting salmon. Late fall torrential rains can wash eggs out of a stream. Salmon are often harvested as by-catch by ocean trawlers or caught illegally by foreign fishermen on the high seas. Storms can also kill large numbers of salmon, and climate change may reduce their available prey in the ocean.

Pink salmon are one of the most important species of salmon for commercial fishermen. Due to their lower oil content, pink salmon aren’t worth as much per pound as other salmon species, but they are by far the most abundant salmon species in the state, and their sheer volume in numbers make up for their lower price. Since 1990, annual statewide harvests have averaged 100 million pink salmon. There was a huge pink salmon run on Kodiak Island this summer, and so far, estimates have reached a return of 28 million pinks just to Kodiak. Pink salmon are canned, filleted and flash frozen, made into nuggets, and prepared into complete pre-packaged meals sold worldwide.

In addition to being an important commercial species, pink salmon are also popular with sports anglers. Approximately 731,000 pink salmon are harvested each year by sports fishermen. Pink salmon may be smaller than other salmon, but in fresh water, they aggressively attack a lure and are fun to catch. They have a mild flavor similar that of a trout and are especially good grilled fresh.

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Pink Salmon (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha)


Pink salmon (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha) are also sometimes known as humpback salmon, or “humpies,” due to the hump males develop on their backs before they spawn. Pink salmon are the smallest of the five species of Pacific salmon found in Alaska. They average between 3.5 and 5 lbs. (1.6-2.3 kg) in weight and are usually between 20 and 25 inches (51-63 cm) long.

Young pink salmon are completely silver with no parr marks or spots. In their ocean phase, adult pink salmon are steel blue to blue green on the back and have silver sides and a white belly. As they get closer to fresh water, males develop large, black spots on the back, the adipose fin, and on both lobes of the caudal fin (tail). When they return to fresh water to spawn, males turn dark on the back and are red with olive blotches on the sides. They have a bright white belly. Females are similarly but less-distinctly colored. In their ocean phase, pink salmon have an elongate, fusiform shape, but when a male returns to fresh water, he develops a large hump on his back, an enlarged head with big teeth, and hooked jaws called a kype. These morphological changes allow a male to fight off other males once he has chosen a breeding partner.

Pink salmon are the most numerous Pacific salmon. They occur naturally throughout the coastal waters of the North Pacific Ocean, Arctic Ocean and nearby seas. In North America, pink salmon have been found in small numbers as far south as north-central California, but they are more common from Puget Sound northward. They also occur to the west from the Lena River in Siberia south to Korea and Kyushu, Japan. Pink salmon have been introduced to the Great Lakes. In Alaska, pink salmon are abundant along the coast.

Pink salmon complete their entire life cycle within two years, the shortest life cycle of any Pacific salmon. Because the life span is two years, fish born in an odd-numbered year do not interbreed with fish born in an even-numbered year, creating genetically distinct odd-year and even-year populations. Even if salmon spawn in the same stream, odd-year and even-year fish will never interbreed, and often, either the odd-year or even-year population in a stream will produce more fish.

Salmon eggs incubate in the gravel of a stream over the winter and hatch either in the late winter or early spring. The alevin that emerges from the egg remains under the gravel, receiving nutrients from the large yolk sac attached to its belly. Once it depletes its yolk sac and emerges from the gravel, the fry swims downstream to the ocean and begins eating plankton and larval fishes.

Eighteen months later, the adult salmon returns to the stream or river where it was born to spawn. It arrives back at the stream sometime between late June and mid-October, depending on the stream and the population. Once they reach their spawning stream, both males and females stop eating, and they change from their sleek, silver marine phase to their spawning coloration and morphology. A male develops hooked jaws and a hump on his back, and his head and teeth enlarge.

A spawning female chooses a suitable nesting spot in the gravel and prepares a nest by turning on her side, pressing her tail against the stream bottom, and giving several vigorous flaps with her tail. She repeats this action several times to dig a shallow hole. She then settles into the hole to deposit her eggs, and her male partner joins her to fertilize them, using his hooked jaw and large teeth to fend off any other would-be suitors. A female may dig as many as four nests. She digs the second nest upstream from the first nest, covering the eggs in the first nest with the gravel she dislodges while digging the second nest. A group of nests is called a redd. The female defends her redd until she dies, usually two weeks after spawning. All pink salmon die after they spawn.

A female pink salmon lays between 1200 and 1900 eggs. Pink salmon have a tough life. If a fry is lucky enough to make it downstream to the ocean, it faces a mortality rate of 2% to 4% per day for the first forty days. Young salmon provide food for birds, fish, invertebrates, and other predators. Studies show after forty days, the mortality rate drops to .4% to .8% per day. Once a salmon heads back to coastal waters and its natal stream, it must avoid humans, sharks, killer whales, seals, sea lions, river otters, eagles, and every fish larger than it is. When it reaches its birth stream, it becomes prey for bears, eagles, human anglers, and other predators.

Pink salmon mostly spawn in small streams and rivers near the coast, and most do not travel more than forty miles upstream to spawn. In large river systems, though, they sometimes travel further. Pink salmon have been documented swimming 130 miles (209 km) up the Susitna River in Southcentral Alaska, and they have been seen spawning 250 miles (402 km) up the Mulchatna River.

In the ocean, pink salmon eat plankton, small fish, squid, and an occasional aquatic insect. Their flesh gains its pink color from the tiny marine crustaceans they eat.

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Next week, I’ll write about the commercial and sports fisheries for pink salmon. While pink salmon may be the least flashy of the salmon species, they are known as the bread and butter of the salmon commercial fishing industry.

I will soon be releasing my next novel, The Fisherman’s Daughter, so check back often for updates on its release. Also, be sure to sign up for my monthly mystery newsletter. Newsletter subscribers will be the first to hear about the release of my new novel.

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Pacific Salmon


Five species of Pacific salmon return each summer to breed in Alaskan streams, rivers, and lakes. I will admit salmon are confusing fish. Not only do they have some of nature’s most complicated life cycles, but each species of Pacific salmon is known by two different common names. Are Atlantic and Pacific salmon the same fish? Which species of Pacific salmon is worth the most money to commercial fishermen? Do the various species taste different? Which species of salmon freezes the best? Why do some species grow larger than others, and why do salmon jump when they return to spawn?

Over the next few weeks, I hope to answer the above questions while I profile each of the five species. In this post, I will give you a generic overview of salmon and describe the life cycle of a Pacific salmon.

Pacific salmon and Atlantic salmon belong to the same family but not to the same genus. Atlantic salmon are more closely related to some species of trout than they are to Pacific salmon. One big difference between Pacific and Atlantic salmon is Pacific salmon only breed once, and then they die. Atlantic salmon return to freshwater to breed many times before they die.

The five species of Pacific salmon are pink salmon, also known as humpies; chum salmon, also known as dog salmon; red salmon, also known as sockeyes; silver salmon, also known as coho; and king salmon, also known as chinook. The five species look very similar to each other in their marine ocean phase, but once they enter fresh water, salmon go through significant physical changes, and each species has distinctive markings.

Fertilized salmon eggs incubate in the gravel of a river or lake bed for a length of time that varies depending on the species as well as other factors. Once the egg hatches, it is called an alevin. An alevin is small and has a relatively large, orange yolk sac attached to its body. The alevin receives its nutrients from the yolk sac and remains hidden from predators in the safety of the gravel bottom of the stream or lake. As the alevin grows, it depletes the nutrients in the yolk sac and begins to develop mouth parts.

Once the yolk sac is depleted, the young salmon leaves the safety of the gravel bed and must search for its food. At this point in its life cycle, the fish is called a fry. Except for pink salmon, a fry has parr marks along each side of its body. These marks provide camouflage to protect the fry from predators. Fry eat food such as insect larvae and plankton.

This is where the life cycle begins to get complicated. Fry remain in fresh water for a length of time which not only varies between species but may also vary between populations of the same species. Sockeye and silver salmon usually remain in fresh water for one or two years, while pink and chum salmon migrate to sea soon after they emerge from the gravel. King salmon fry usually stay in fresh water for one year.

Before salmon migrate to the ocean, they lose their parr marks and turn silver in color. At this stage of their lifecycle, they are called smolt. Once smolt leave their freshwater stream, they spend a great deal of time in brackish water where freshwater streams flow into the ocean. They feed and grow in the brackish water until they reach a certain size, and then they migrate to the ocean. Once they enter the marine phase of their lifecycle, they are considered adult salmon.

Adult salmon remain in the ocean for a variable amount of time, depending on the species and the population. King salmon can stay in the ocean for as long as six years, but pink salmon return to freshwater to spawn when they are only two-years-old. Once adult salmon return to freshwater, they undergo a dramatic physical change. Sockeye salmon, king salmon, and silver salmon turn dark red, while chum salmon develop calico bands on each side of their bodies. Pink salmon turn dark, and males develop a hooked jaw and a large hump on their back.

Salmon return to the stream or lake where they were born to spawn and die. At this point in their lifecycle, they are called spawners. Once the salmon reach their spawning grounds, a male and female form pair bond. The female digs a bed, called a redd, for the eggs in the gravel. She deposits her eggs in the redd, and the male swims over the eggs and fertilizes them with his sperm. She then brushes a light coating of gravel over the eggs. Once they spawn, all species of Pacific salmon slowly deteriorate and die, their bodies left to fertilize the stream or lake where they were born, ensuring the birthing grounds will remain rich in nutrients for future generations.

Every year, I watch salmon return to their natal streams to spawn. This summer, we had a huge return of pink salmon to the many streams on Kodiak Island, and at times when I sat on our boat, salmon surrounded me, jumping out of the water as far as I could see, reminding me of popcorn. I am always amazed by the incredible life cycles of Pacific salmon and how the many animals and plants on Kodiak Island depend on salmon to survive and thrive. As they return from the ocean, salmon are chased by humans, bears, eagles, seals, sea lions, sharks, and any fish big enough and fast enough to catch them. It is a wonder any salmon survives the gauntlet it must swim to reach its birth area and reproduce. Once it spawns and dies, the body of a salmon provides nutrients for the stream or lake bed and the plants and trees growing in the vicinity. It is impossible to imagine a Kodiak riparian ecosystem without salmon.

Next week, I’ll write about pink salmon, the smallest but one of the most important of the five Pacific salmon species.

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Summer Update

This week, I would like to give you a summer update. Last week, I wrote about the difficult spring and summer I have had, but I didn’t want to leave things on a negative note. I began writing my last post a few weeks ago, and since then, I have gotten stronger and am beginning to recover the use of my muscles. Lately, I’ve been going out on the boat nearly every day with our summer guests; although, I will admit I’m not much help.

While I have been challenged by the physical demands of my job this summer, spending my days with our guests and the wildlife of Uyak Bay has done much to repair my psychological health. Mike took the above photo one day when a pod of Orcas fed and frolicked near our lodge. An abundant, sustained pink salmon run this summer has provided food for everything from Orcas to bears to eagles. Our fishermen have also enjoyed catching salmon.

Soon after my return from the hospital (you can read about that drama in my last post), a group of Australian guests involved us all in an interactive murder game, lasting their entire stay. The game was great fun and had us each trusting no one else in camp. It did not surprise me when Mike (my husband) won the game by murdering the most people. As if my summer hadn’t already been bad enough, Mike even murdered me!

The most uplifting news for me this season was to learn that a sow we have watched for the past eight years showed up this summer with three newborn cubs. The sow was badly injured by another bear when she was very young, and her rear end was flayed open. The injury was so bad, we didn’t think she would survive. We were happy and surprised to see her the next summer, and while the scar has faded over the years, it is still obvious. She has always been a favorite bear for us and our guests because she seems to like to perform in front of us, often catching a fish and then turning toward the photographers, fish held high while the cameras whir. The walls in our dining room are covered with photos of bears, and many of the photos are of her. As the years passed, and she appeared by herself summer after summer, we assumed she was a barren sow and wondered if the horrific injury she received when she was little more than a cub had anything to do with her inability to reproduce. We couldn’t have been more surprised when she showed up this summer with three tiny cubs trailing behind her, and I immediately began e-mailing some of our past guests to tell them the exciting news. From all accounts, she is a good mother, and all those years of fishing on her own have made her a proficient provider. She still doesn’t seem afraid of us, but she keeps her distance from humans now because she has more than herself to worry about.

We still have several weeks left of our summer season, and if nature follows its usual trend, fishing will peak in late August, and bear viewing will get better every day right up until our last day of the season in mid-September. Every year, nearly 50% of our guests are returnees, and this year is no exception. We love the mix of returnees and new guests, and I like to think of it as old and new friends.

No matter how bad the first part of my summer was, I knew things would improve once I climbed onto our boat, the Mary Beth, and began enjoying adventures with our guests.

You can read more about our lodge at www.munseysbearcamp.com .

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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.

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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.

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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.
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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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

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