Everyone has heard about the salmon runs of Alaska. Kids grow up watching or reading National Geographic specials premiering leaping salmon and an eager bear mouth hanging open at the tops of raging rapids waiting for a fish to land in it. These iconic salmon runs are one of the great migrations of Alaska and each year the input of nutrients from dying salmon fuels an entire ecosystem, and caught, drying salmon feed entire villages. The images and videos of an Alaskan salmon run prime the imagination, but to see a great run of salmon roiling over each other is an incredible spectacle!
At the Solomon Gulch Fish Hatchery tens-of-thousands of pink salmon build up in the small river mouth. These fish are the result of up to 230,000,000 pink salmon eggs the hatchery is permitted to incubate. The average return of salmon is 10,000,000 individuals! The fish – like all salmon- are trying to reach their place of birth even it it happens to be the fish hatchery. In the waters below the a long, metal structure which directs the fish into the hatchery, fish roil, boil, and splash downstream of the weir. The weir also keeps the salmon from running up Solomon Gulch, which is only used as a fresh water source and is far to small to hold all of the running fish.
The fish are chaotic, but are still conscious of their surroundings and skiddish. As you walk up to the shore a mere feet the salmon, they scatter as if you were a bear. Pink salmon have a different life cycle than their larger cousins like chinooks, cohos, and chum. The fish mature in 2 years and there are genetically distinct ‘odd’ and ‘even’ year populations because ‘odd’ and ‘even’ year fish do not breed with each other. In general pink salmon do not travel as far upstream as other salmon – usually no further than 40 miles. However, certain rivers have pink salmon which can travel 250 miles. The large breeding hump has earned them the nickname ‘humpies’ (http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/?adfg=pinksalmon.main)
The gallery below attempts to capture the chaos of salmon rolling over salmon. Faces with wild eyes appeared and disappeared below the surface as they jockeyed for position in the current. The staggering number of fish is inconceivable and becomes even more so if you think of how many other rivers run in Alaska with the same, strong numbers.
The salmon provide food for many animals; bear crossing signs along the river are a constant warning to stay out of the way when the bruins appear. In the hatchery area, several Steller Sea Lions harvested salmon in nature’s equivalent of fast food. Every brown-fur head to submerge below the surface resulted in a small wall of water from the fleeing salmon. Pictured below, a large male caused panic among the pinks as he repeatably dove and came up with fish. When he emerged with a flopping salmon, it was thrashed against the surface pulling it apart to be consumed and leaving scraps in the water for begging gulls. This behavior mimicked the behavior or the California Sea Lion that we observed last year.
This short video captures some of the sound, chaos, and power of the running salmon, the sea-side, and shows a full hunting sequence of a Steller Sea Lion!
Of course the fishing for the pink salmon was almost a fish a cast! You cannot fish near the weir, but that hardly mattered. Fish rose throughout the bay and could be easily fished from shore. Although many salmon ‘lose’ their appetite as they head up stream the fish will still hit spoons from time to time. Unfortunately its inevitable to snag a few too. All of the pink salmon were released because they do not taste good.
6 thoughts on “Seeing the Cycle : The Pink Salmon of Valdez”
I am so intrigued by this. Ian, you need to work for “National Geographic” or at least do freelance for hire. Maybe you could do educational videos. Your work is really good, and you know I have high standards. These are some of the best biology lessons I’ve ever had!
Thanks for the encouragement, Sandy! I certainly have thought about doing that kind of work, but right now I love just ‘building the skillset’ by taking lots of photos and doing some editing. Maybe I’ll put those skills to use someday!
Was struck by a type of claustrophobia, as I looked at the photos and watched the videos. A salmon scrum, Their desperate attempt to escape the sea lion’s underwater surge was stunning. Remarkably similar to seeing minnows doing exactly the same from some piscatorial predator on a Minnesota lake. But now the predator weighs half a ton, and the desperate escapees 10 pounds. Thanks for another keeper.
A salmon scrum!
I am, once again, amazed by the visuals & commentaries to describe & support what we are seeing. This is such good work!
Thanks Peggy! I’ve actually just updated it a bit to include some more history of pink salmon 🙂