The month of April in Alaska involves a lot boat maintenance, bears emerging from dens, freezers being purchased and nets being repaired, all in keen anticipation of the return of the amazing Alaskan salmon! Beginning in mid-May with the Copper River Reds and Kings (Sockeye and Chinook, respectively) through the Silvers (Coho) in August there is a frenzy of activity to harvest some of the most highly prized and delicious fish in the world.
The town of Cordova weighs in first as fishermen rush the first fresh salmon of the season back to the processors and soon “salmon-thirty-salmons” are flying to Anchorage and Seattle, where they are distributed from there to high-end eateries and connoisseurs around the world, which is one reason why these are called amazing Alaskan salmon! Prices as high as $25.95 a pound for Sockeye fillets and $38.95 a pound for Kings are seen as these are the very first of the protein rich red meat to hit the market.
But its still April, where are the Salmon and what are they up to? How far they travel and where they go is the second reason we call these fish amazing Alaskan salmon!
Most of the salmon that will soon be headed for Alaskan rivers are roaming far at sea in the North Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea. The Alaska state fish is the Chinook (King) salmon and they, along with the Sockeye, migrate close to Kamchatka, Russia, and south of the Aleutian Islands. In fact, a Chinook was tagged in the central Aleutian Islands and was found a year later in Salmon River, Idaho having traveled about 3500 miles. Most salmon will migrate several thousand miles from the time they leave their fresh water streams as juveniles and return as adults (one to nine years depending upon the species) to complete their reproductive cycles. During those years in the ocean salmon are busy searching for food and trying to stay out of the mouths of predators and nets. They feed on small fish, shrimp, squid, etc. all the while Orca whales, sea lions, and seals are an ever present danger during a life at sea. When the salmon get ready to leave the salt water they have a very high fat content which is a result of storing fat for their long journey up the river to spawn. The fish stops eating during this trip and lives off the fat stored in its body. If that salmon is caught while still in the saltwater, or shortly after reaching the fresh river water, it is extremely rich in flavor and very high in Omega-3 fatty acids.
The average spawning trip is a distance is 150 miles but the Kings that leave the Bering Sea and swim the entire length of the Yukon River will go 2400 miles and gain 2,200 feet in elevation before reaching Lake Teslin in Canada. This means they better be good and fat before taking on that ultra marathon!
While swimming in the fresh water towards the spawning grounds they will dodge nets, talons, hooks and bear jaws. While traveling on this journey, it begs the question…how in the world do they know where to go?! It is one of the more amazing miracles of creation. There is evidence to support the conclusion that salmon have a number of senses which lead them back to their native stream to spawn. These include the earth’s magnetic field, position of the sun — and possibly the moon and stars — along with the ability, though olfaction, to detect the chemical composition of the stream from which they began. Each stream and river has minor differences in chemical composition, and there is good evidence to conclude that salmon taste and or smell the difference to identify their native stream. This method, of course, would only be useful once they have already located the general area using their other senses.
So in 6 to 8 weeks when many of you will be landing those silvery prizes I hope you have a little more appreciation and awe of the truly amazing Alaskan salmon. And, by the way, make sure your BBQ is in tip top shape as well.