Suspected Atlantic salmon nabbed

Posted: Thursday, July 13, 2006

A fish caught in a setnet near Kasilof earlier this month may become the first documented Atlantic salmon discovered in Cook Inlet, Alaska Department of Fish and Game resource managers said Wednesday.

“This one definitely does look like an Atlantic salmon,” said Jeff Fox, a Fish and Game management biologist.

Fox said all previous reports of suspected Atlantic salmon in Cook Inlet have been false alarms.

“They’re usually an odd looking salmon from here of some sort,” he said.

Fishermen also mistakenly identify steelhead as Atlantic salmon, an exotic species that invades wild Pacific salmon habitat. It escapes from fish farms located along the west coasts of Canada and Washington.

But the fish caught near Kasilof, off of Cohoe beach raised some eyebrows, and resource managers have asked that it be tested at the department’s genetics lab in Anchorage.

“Every key characteristic fits,” said Bob Piorkowski, the invasive species coordinator for Fish and Game.

Piorkowski said he first received a call reporting the fish Friday.

But Joel Doner, the setnet fishermen who caught the fish, has been puzzling over it since July 1, when he first discovered the large-scaled fish on his boat.

“I saw about the mid-third of his back where I could just see his scales,” Doner said. “And I knew it wasn’t a Pacific salmon just by that. I know Pacific salmon inside and out.”

As he approached the fish, Doner said he initially thought it was a sheefish, but even after he decided that it wasn’t, he struggled to pin an identity on the mysterious fish.

“When I picked it up I thought it was a steelhead,” he said.

But upon closer inspection, Doner noted several characteristics that did not match up with a steelhead and discarded that idea, as well.

“It didn’t have spots in its tail, it didn’t have any color at all, it had big dark spots on its gill plates and a small mouth,” he said.

And Doner said although the fish he caught was about as big as a large sockeye, it was shaped like a long and narrow torpedo, rather than the football-like shape he identifies with sockeye salmon.

When Piorkowski received Doner’s call, he asked a series of questions to identify features that may or may not be consistent with those found on an Atlantic salmon.

“Probably 90 percent of the reports that I get do not fit all the characteristics, or people are not sure,” said Piorkowski, who has a doctorate in aquatic ecology.

But in this case, all of the characteristics Doner identified on the suspect fish fit with those found on an Atlantic salmon, he said.

After he talked to Doner, Piorkowski, who works out of an office in Juneau, quickly contacted Fox who examined the fish and confirmed the characteristics described by Doner.

Among some of the key identifying characteristics of an Atlantic salmon are an anal fin with eight to 11 rays and a mouth that does not extend past the far edge of the fish’s eye, Piorkowski said.

Pacific salmon have an anal fin with 12 or more rays and large mouths that reach past the eye.

Although Atlantic salmon farms are not legal along Alaska coasts, approximately 600 reports of Atlantic salmon caught in Alaska waters have been confirmed.

And while Doner’s fish could be the first confirmed Atlantic salmon in Cook Inlet, it is likely that Atlantic salmon have made undocumented visits to Cook Inlet before and will again in the future, Fish and Game resource managers say.

Concerns raised by Atlantic salmon found in Alaska waters include several potential threats to wild Pacific salmon, including the spread of disease and competition.

As long as Alaska’s wild Pacific salmon stocks remain strong, there may be little room for competition from Atlantic salmon, but that might not always be the case.

“There is a chance that sometime in the future they could compete with our Pacific salmon,” Piorkowski said.

And farmed Atlantic salmon, which under crowded farm conditions are stressed and consequently more susceptible to disease, may carry diseases with them into the wild when they escape.

“It’s kind of scary,” Doner said. “The inlet has enough problems without a stink rat problem. It’s interesting, but like I said, I’d just as soon never catch one again.”

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