Category Archives: Fish

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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Sockeye Salmon and Humans

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

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

Commercial Sockeye Fishery

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

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

Sport and Subsistence Fisheries

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

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

 Status and Trends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My novel, The Fisherman’s Daughter is now available for sale in both e-book and print formats. Also, be sure to sign up for my newsletter about murder in Alaska.

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Commercial and Sport Fishing for Coho (Silver) Salmon

Last week, I wrote about the life cycle of a coho salmon, and I mentioned cohos are the most aggressive species of Pacific Salmon. Their aggressive nature makes them a favorite target for anglers. Cohos can be caught in the ocean and their spawning streams. They hit a lure or a fly hard and are tenacious fighters, often leaping out of the water and running fast both away and toward the fisherman. Coho salmon are also an important commercial species, but there are not nearly as many cohos as there are pink, chum, or red salmon, so cohos are not as economically valuable to commercial fishermen as these other Pacific Salmon species. In this post, I will cover both the commercial and sport fisheries for coho salmon, and I will discuss the current status, threats, and trends of cohos in their native range.

Commercial Fishery for Cohos in Alaska

 In most of the state, commercial fishermen catch coho salmon together with other salmon species by purse seining and gill netting. In Southeast Alaska, though, the majority of coho salmon are caught by the commercial troll fishery.[9] In 2017, commercial salmon fishermen in Alaska harvested nearly 225 million Pacific Salmon. Five million coho accounted for 2% of the harvest, but due to their large size and a price of nearly $1.20 per pound, the commercial coho catch was worth 38 million dollars, or 6% of the total salmon harvest value.[10]

Sport Fishery for Cohos in Alaska

The coho salmon is one of the most sought-after game fish in Alaska, and since the decline in king salmon numbers over the past few years, the sport fishery for cohos has become even more popular. Cohos are targeted by anglers in salt and fresh water from July through September in Alaska, and sport anglers catch nearly 1.5 million cohos every year in the state.[9]

In salt water, cohos are mostly caught by trolling or mooching. Herring is a popular bait, and any jig that looks like a small fish works well. Cohos are not particular about the bait or the jig as long as the angler keeps the jig active. The biggest challenge of catching cohos in the ocean is finding them. They may be at any depth from the surface to eighty feet or deeper.

Cohos are more finicky once they enter their spawning stream when their bodies change shape and color, and they stop eating. They will still aggressively hit a lure or a fly even after they gain their spawning colors, but they often become shy of lures, especially on a sunny day. Popular freshwater lures for spin fishing include Pixee spoons, golf tees, and spinners.

Status and Threats for Cohos

 Many coho salmon populations in California and the Pacific Northwest are threatened or endangered, but coho populations in Alaska are healthy.[9] In the southern part of their range on the west coast of the United States, humans have altered much of the coho’s habitat by urban development, constructing dams, diverting streams and rivers for agriculture, recreation, mining, logging, and other human-related activities. Studies show that in most western states, 80 to 90 percent of the historic riparian habitat has been destroyed, and 53 percent of the wetlands in the lower 48 have been eliminated. California has lost 91% of its wetland habitat, and wetlands in Oregon and Washington have been diminished by one third.[9] How can coho salmon with their complex lifecycle in fresh and salt water possibly thrive when much of the habitat they need to survive is gone?

Throughout their range, including Alaska, coho salmon will likely be impacted by warming ocean temperatures.

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I am very excited to announce my new novel, The Fisherman’s Daughter, will be available at online booksellers on November 1st. I am nervous but thrilled as I await its release. I want to again thank all of you who pre-ordered my novel.

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Coho or Silver Salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch)

Coho salmon, often called silver salmon due to their beautiful bright chrome color, are the most aggressive of the Pacific Salmon species. There aren’t as many cohos as there are pink salmon, chum salmon, or sockeye salmon, but coho salmon manage to spawn in tributaries and small headwaters inaccessible to other salmon species. A Coho can leap vertically six feet (1.8 m) to overcome obstacles such as rapids or waterfalls on its return journey to its spawning stream, and cohos usually migrate to their spawning streams later than other salmon species at a time when fall floods allow them to access areas not available during lower water levels.  Even young cohos are aggressive, and they often eat the young of other salmon species. This aggressive nature of coho salmon makes them excellent fighters on a rod and reel and an important species for the sportfishing industry in Alaska.

Range

The natural range of coho salmon is from Monterey Bay, California north to Point Hope, Alaska, west across the Bering Sea to the Anadyr River in Siberia, and south along the coast of Asia to Japan. Cohos have been introduced to the Great Lakes and other lakes in the Continental U.S. Cohos spawn in ponds, lakes, and pools within streams and rivers.

Description

Coho adults usually weigh between 8 and 12 lbs. (3.6-5.4 kg) and range from 24 to 30 inches (61-72 cm) in length, but fish weighing up to 31 lbs. (14.1 kg) have been caught. During their marine phase, adults are bright silver and have small, black dots on the back and the upper lobe of the tail fin. In their marine phase, cohos look very similar to king (Chinook) salmon, but king salmon have spots on both lobes of the tail, while cohos only have spots on the upper lobe. Another way to distinguish the two species is cohos have white gums, while king salmon have black gums.

When cohos return to freshwater to spawn, males turn dark to bright green on the head and back, bright red on the sides, and dark on the belly. Breeding females are not as brightly colored as males. Spawning males develop a hooked jaw called a kype.

Life Cycle

In Alaska, coho salmon return to their spawning streams from July to November, usually during periods of heavy rain and high runoff. On Kodiak, most cohos return from late August through October. A female coho selects a suitable spot and then begins to dig a nest, or redd. She turns on her side and gives several powerful flips of her tail to remove silt and other debris and then continues to dig for two to five minutes until she has a shallow nest. While she is digging her nest, she aggressively drives away other females. Meanwhile, a male coho stays near the female while she digs the nest, occasionally swimming close to her. He may also stop beside her and quiver, swim over her and touch her dorsal fin, or nudge her side with his snout. When the female has finished excavating the nest, she drops into the deepest part of the depression, and the male immediately joins her. The two fish remain side by side in the nest while they open their mouths, quiver, and release eggs and sperm. The female then moves upstream and begins digging a new nest, covering the eggs in the first nest with the gravel she dislodges from the second nest. Nest digging and spawning may continue at intervals over the next several days, until the female deposits all her eggs. The male might then leave and seek another female, but the female will continue the digging process until she grows weak and dies.

A female coho lays between 2,400 and 4,500 eggs. The eggs develop over the winter and hatch in the early spring. The alevin, with the yolk sac attached, remains in the gravel until May or June before emerging. Young silver salmon fry usually spend between one and three winters in fresh water, but some spend as many as five years in a lake before migrating to the ocean. Young silver salmon in Karluk Lake on Kodiak Island often stay two, three, or even four years in fresh water before migrating to sea. The length of time spent at sea also varies for coho salmon. Some males, called jacks, mature and return after only six months at sea, but most cohos remain in the ocean for 18 months to three years and return as full-size adults.

Prey and Predators

Cohos are aggressive feeders. In freshwater, they eat a wide range of aquatic insects and plankton. They also eat salmon eggs, and as they grow, the fry also consume smaller fry. In the ocean, cohos eat herring, sand lance, other fish, and squid.

Young coho are eaten by birds, larger fish, and a variety of other predators. Killer whales, sharks, sea lions, seals, bears, humans, and other land mammals prey on adult cohos.

Next week, I will cover commercial and sport fisheries for cohos as well as threats to coho salmon populations.

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Announcements

The publication date has changed for my novel, The Fisherman’s Daughter. Now, both the e-book and print versions of the novel will be released on November 1st. You can still pre-order the e-book, and it will be delivered to your device as soon as it is released. If you pre-ordered my novel, thank you!

Sign up below if you would like to receive my free, monthly newsletter about true murder stories from Alaska. This past month, I wrote about the Birdman of Alcatraz, and yes, this is an Alaska murder story. Check out the Birdman to see if my newsletter might interest you.

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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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Is a serial killer stalking women on Kodiak Island? My novel,  The Fisherman’s Daughter, is available for pre-order!


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