Wild Alaska Salmon - Alaska Salmon Buyer's Guide

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Alaska Salmon Buyer's Guide

Alaska Salmon
The five species of Alaska salmon are members of a large family of fish known as salmonidae which are abundant throughout the temperate zones of the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. Salmon and their salmonidae relatives, which include Atlantic salmon, are active and aggressive predators who demand the high levels of oxygen most commonly found in cold, rushing streams, estuaries, and the upper levels of the ocean.

Pacific salmon occur from California north along the Pacific coast throughout the Pacific Ocean, Bering Sea and Arctic Ocean waters adjacent to Alaska. Alaska’s wild salmon resource is the greatest in the world.

Alaska salmon belong to the genus Oncorhynchus, a name formed by combining two Greek words, “onco” meaning hook or barb, and “rhyno”, meaning nose. The scientific names for each of the five species were given during the exploration of Siberia, and reflect the native vernacular names for the fish. Thus, we have:

Scientific name Common name Other names
Oncorhynchus gorbusha Pink Humpy, Humpback
Oncorhynchus keta Chum Keta
Oncorhynchus kisutch Coho Silver
Oncorhynchus nerka Sockeye Red
Oncorhynchus tschawytscha King Chinook

Alaska salmon are anadromous, that is, they spawn in fresh water and the young migrate to the sea where they mature. The timing of spawning and migration varies among the five species, but they all need abundant, pure, fresh water for spawning. The fresh water that attracts the maturing salmon from the ocean vastness to the interior of the continent to spawn also draws the salmon Alevins and Salmon Eggsto man’s doorstep.

Although the spawning characteristics of each of the five species of Alaska salmon differ, each maintains the same timing year after year, and, with few exceptions, the mature adults return to the stream of their birth.

Salmon which will spawn in the headwaters of a river or lake system (king, coho and sockeye), arrive earlier than do the pink and chum which spawn closer to tidewater. Because salmon do not eat after they have entered fresh water, they leave the ocean heavy with the fats and nutrients on which they will subsist during their freshwater phase. The longer and more rigorous the freshwater trip, the more fat the fish will carry as he leaves the ocean. A Yukon River king headed for spawning grounds 2,400 miles (4,000 kilometers) away and 2,200 feet (670 meters) above sea level near Lake Teslin will enter the river an unusually rich, vigorous fish.

Salmon LifecycleHow salmon return so unerringly from mid-ocean to a stream which may be only a trickle hundreds of miles from tidewater is not fully understood by biologists. Except where humans have interfered, however, the salmon returning to the various river systems and streams of Alaska are unique species which may mingle in the ocean and even in the estuary, but return faithfully to the gravel from which they emerged two to six years earlier. Fish that enter fresh water early in the season are more brightly colored than those that arrive later, but all salmon turn darker as the time to spawn approaches. Pronounced morphological changes take place, particularly in the spawning male. The female selects a suitable patch of gravel, and excavates the nest. When she is ready, she allows the male to fertilize her eggs as she deposits them in the gravel.

Five to seven months after spawning, the young salmon fry emerge from the gravel where the spawning pair deposited and fertilized the eggs the fall before. Some of the fry will go to sea almost immediately, while others, such as sockeye, king and coho will remain in streams and lakes for a year or more. When the fry migrate toward the sea, they undergo certain changes which prepare them for life in salt water; during this stage of life they are called smolts. In the estuary, where salt and fresh water mix and food is abundant, a smolt may double or even triple its weight before venturing westward into the Gulf of Alaska or Bering Sea. Depending on the species, the salmon may go within a few miles of the Kamchatka Peninsula which extends southward from Siberia toward the western tip of the Aleutian Islands.

Growth rates in the ocean are no less astonishing than those in the estuary. A two-inch pink salmon which leaves the estuary and moves offshore in early-to-mid summer can return slightly more than a year later as a two-foot, five-pound adult. Pink salmon spend a year in ocean waters; other species may spend four, five or even six years in the ocean pastures growing to prodigious size. A 126-pound king salmon landed in Southeastern Alaska is thought to have spent seven years in the ocean.