Category Archives: Fish

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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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!

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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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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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I am excited to announce the e-book of my novel, The Fisherman’s Daughteris now available for pre-order.  

                                                                  

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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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I am excited to announce the ebook of my novel The Fisherman’s Daughter is now available for pre-order at Amazon and other online booksellers.

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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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