Salmon 101

Posted: Monday, July 09, 2001

If you don't know the difference between an alevin and an elver, read on. Following is a primer of salmon basics.

Members of the salmon family, prized for their sleek beauty and edibility, include salmon, trout, char, grayling and whitefish. The seven Pacific salmon, of which five species occur in Alaska, are closely related to rainbow and cutthroat trout. Atlantic salmon are more closely related to the European brown trout.

Salmon, like geese and monarch butterflies, are migratory animals. The urge to travel and the guiding map to go with it are hard-wired into their genetic code. They are anadromous -- meaning they divide their lives between fresh water and saltwater.

Each salmon hatches from a pink bead of an egg buried in gravel. The hatchlings, called alevins, remain in the gravel and survive off their yolk sacs. After the yolk is gone, the young emerge from the gravel as fry. They grow and develop dark bars, at which stage they are called parr or fingerlings. The fingerlings turn silver and head for the sea as smolts.

Young salmon follow the rivers to the ocean, where they remain from one to seven years.

Then, at the prompting of a mysterious inner calendar, the mature salmon turn back to the waters from which they came. They gather in great schools and swim up the coast, smelling for the subtle cues of their natal streams. They retrace their original travels, fighting their way upstream past obstacles and predators, including humans.

As they move back into fresh water, they stop feeding, lose their silver sheen and metamorphose into ruddy adults. Males develop hooked snouts, their teeth get bigger and the fish fixate on breeding.

Back in the creeks or shorelines where they were born, the females scoop out nests, called redds, in the gravel while the males quarrel over them. The females lay thousands of bright eggs, called roe, which the males fertilize with clouds of white milt.

Then, their destiny fulfilled, the few salmon that complete the long journey die, their corpses feeding a complex river ecosystem that will nourish their descendants in future years.

Each species of salmon has a distinctive habitat and life cycle:

King salmon: Alaska's state fish, also called chinook or tyee, these big guys are feisty on the line and a delicacy on the dinner table. The world's record sport-caught king, weighing 97.25 pounds, was caught at Soldotna, but the average size is 20 to 40 pounds.


King (chinook) salmon

Kings tend to lay eggs in the main channels of rivers. Fry usually remain in rivers for a year before heading to sea. In the Kenai River, nearly all juvenile kings live near the banks, relying on slower water and natural cover. Once in Cook Inlet, some kings linger near shore year-round, tempting winter anglers.

Kings are most numerous in western and southwestern Alaska, but are important in Cook Inlet. The Kenai River has an early run of kings from mid-May to July, and a late run throughout July. Other major king fisheries are in the Kasilof, Anchor and Ninilchik rivers, plus Deep Creek, offshore at Deep Creek and in stocked areas at the Homer Spit and Halibut Cove.

Although kings dominate the sport fishery and command high prices from processors, they are relatively rare. Over the past decade in the inlet, the estimated annual sport catch was about 30,000, and the estimated commercial catch was about 15,000.

Red salmon: Also called sockeyes, these are the main money fish of the commercial fleet and reputed to be the best eating. The fish, which average 4 to 8 pounds, are silvery with iridescent dark blue-green backs in saltwater and change to a vivid scarlet with green heads as they move upriver to spawn. The males develop humped backs and sharp, small teeth.

Reds are partial to watersheds with lakes. They lay eggs in rivers, streams and along lake shores. Fry usually stay one to three years in lakes before migrating to sea. Studies find they can travel thousands of miles during their one to four years in the oceans.

Alaska's biggest red salmon fishery is in Bristol Bay, but reds also dominate the Cook Inlet commercial harvest, and they fetch the highest price per pound of any salmon species. The state's biggest sport fishery for reds is at the Russian River, with two runs extending from mid-June to mid-August. They also are a popular dipnet or gillnet fish at the Kasilof and Kenai rivers.

Over the past decade in the inlet, the commercial harvest has averaged about 3.8 million reds and the sport harvest about 1.4 million.

Silver salmon: Also called cohos, these are excellent eating and popular sport fish that put up a good fight on a line. In size, they fall between reds and kings, averaging from 8 to 12 pounds. In color, as their name implies, they are silver at sea; as they move inland to spawn their sides turn red and their heads dark.

Silvers prefer tributaries and quiet water, even small creeks. The fry stay one to three years in fresh water, establishing territories in ponds, lakes, calm pools or shallow margins of streams or rivers, especially among woody debris. They may spend as many as five winters in streams and lakes before heading to sea.

They usually only remain at sea six or 18 months before returning to natal streams. They tend to run later than other salmon, with two runs in the Kenai River from late July to the end of September. Other popular Cook Inlet places to catch silvers are the Anchor River, the Ninilchik River, Deep Creek and Kachemak Bay.

In the 1990s, inlet commercial fishers took an average of about 350,000 and sport fishers about 690,000 silvers per year.

Pink salmon: Pinks, also called humpback or humpies, are the smallest salmon, weighing 3.5 to 4 pounds on average. At sea, they have larger spots on the tails than other salmon. Moving in to spawn, they turn greenish on the back and develop piebald, pale markings on their bellies. The males develop pronounced humps.

Pinks have a distinctive two-year life cycle, and odd- and even-year stocks are unrelated. In upper Cook Inlet, the even years dominate.

Pinks spawn close to the sea, sometimes even in tidewater estuaries. The hatchlings head straight for the ocean. Two years after their parents spawned, they return, arriving in Cook Inlet waters in July.

Pinks' abundant schools are important to commercial and subsistence harvesters, although low prices have diminished commercial interest.

Their pink flesh is paler than that of kings, reds or silvers, and they often are canned. Historically, they have been commonly processed in Cook Inlet, but they also fetch the lowest price per pound.

During the 1990s, the average annual inlet pink harvest was about 295,000 commercially and 13,500 in the sport fishery.

Chum salmon: Also called dog salmon, chums are the least popular with Cook Inlet fishers. They are about the same size as silvers. At sea, they lack spots, and when they change to spawning color they develop bars or patches of green and purple, earning the nickname calico salmon. The males develop prominent, dog-like teeth.

Chum spawn in a variety of habitats, including rivers, tributaries and tidewater. Like pinks, the hatchlings immediately return to the ocean. They remain at sea three to six years before returning to spawning areas.

Chums are most common in the arctic, where they play a major role. People traditionally dry them for winter use and to feed dog teams. Their flesh is gray in contrast to the bright pink of other salmon and generally is considered inferior. In Cook Inlet, most chums head toward the Susitna River.

During the 1990s, the inlet's average annual catch was about 239,000 commercially and several hundred in the sport fishery.

Author's note: An elver, by the way, is a baby eel and has nothing to do with Cook Inlet salmon.

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