Pacific Salmon 101: Summertime in Alaska is Salmon Business

Story by Karen Evenden and Illustrations by Jean MacKay

Southeast Alaska is a long way from the lower 48 (about 1,000 miles from Seattle to Juneau); the summer weather can be cold, foggy, rainy, windy; the tides are big and the currents are powerful. Neither Bill nor I like to fish, and last but not least, there is a seemingly endless supply of cruise ships that make the same trek from Seattle to Juneau all summer long. So, why would we decide to navigate our boat up and down the famed Inside Passage? Simply stated, we wanted to experience this remote, awe-inspiring, fish-rich, seemingly boundless land on our own slow, curiosity-driven pace.

Alaskan towns like Ketchikan, Petersburg, Juneau, Sitka, and Haines are familiar to many. For some they trigger memories of their own nature-centered Alaskan journey. For others, a visit to these remote destinations—by cruise ship, airplane, ferry, or their own boat—is still on the bucket list.

No question, Alaska frequently tops the list as a dream holiday destination, which makes tourism big business. Throughout the state, visitors are a significant part of the economy but in the small waterfront cities and villages located in the southeast, there is another major source of revenue: fishing. These towns harbor several thousand of the fishing boats that work our 49th state’s seafood-rich waters. In the final analysis, the numbers tell the story: Revenues generated by the sale of Alaskan salmon, halibut, cod, and crab top six billion dollars a year.

Fulfilling a longtime dream, my husband, Bill, and I spent the summer cruising these waters—not as fishermen but as curious visitors. Throughout our journey we viewed and experienced some of the very best that Mother Nature has to offer: soaring snow-capped mountains, deep and steep green-sided fjords, towering waterfalls etched into vertical mountainsides, huge glaciers with their blue-hued iceberg offspring, pods of humpback whales, and rocky islets covered with sea lions. We saw sea otters lounging on their backs while dining in the open waters, and porpoises swimming in the distance and then rushing to our side to play in the energy created by our bow wave. Each day filled us with wonder and gratitude as we cruised at our leisurely seven knots through these often remote and isolated waters.

During this adventure we learned a lot about commercial fishing. We observed the fleet working in all kinds of weather, docked in marinas where our neighbors were almost always commercial fishing vessels, chatted with fishermen as they sat at the dock awaiting the next fisheries opening. We also savored many meals, featuring Alaskan salmon, halibut, cod, and crab. And as a conscientious consumer, I was surprised to learn that Alaska is the only state in the union that requires and enforces a sustainable fisheries management policy. Harvests are carefully regulated and since fish farming is prohibited in Alaskan waters, it is safe to say that all Alaskan seafood sold in the lower 48 is wild-caught.

Summer is salmon season in Alaska. That’s because it is the time of the year that compels mature salmon to return, with unbelievable precision, to one of the more than 2,000 Alaskan freshwater streams, rivers, or lakes where they spawned. They begin their trip, their final run in life, in peak condition. They need to be in great shape. Not only will they swim hundreds or even thousands of miles, they will battle extremely strong currents, moderate waterfalls, and treacherous rapids along the route. A vertical jump by Alaskan salmon of up to 12 feet has been recorded.

Cruising on our boat allowed us to slow down or stop when and where we wanted. We could go for an exploratory hike through the woods (always watching for signs of bear), or check out the salmon activity near the mouth of a river or stream. And the closer we came to that mouth the more we were surrounded by silver flashes popping out of the water. Those bright, shiny flashes were salmon, no doubt trying to avoid an unseen, underwater predator. But clearly not all of the salmon’s predators reside under water. Bald eagles staring from the tree tops, ready to swoop down and capture fishy morsels in their powerful talons, black and brown bears prowling the shores of streams and river beds, and, of course, fishermen, all contribute to the salmon’s fight for survival.

When the fish reached the river’s mouth, the water appeared to be boiling. Huge numbers of salmon and other varieties of fish fighting for position, bullied their way through the crowd up to the graveled water beds where the females would deposit their eggs and the males would swim over to fertilize them. It was the end and also the beginning of this wondrous life cycle.

Alaskan commercial fishing boats also come in a wide range of sizes, shapes, colors, and conditions—old, very old, new or newer. Some are in prime condition and others are so rusted and worn out that I worried that they wouldn’t remain afloat, especially in Alaska’s tempestuous seas. No matter what the size or condition of the boat, you can tell how they go about catching fish by the equipment they carry on board.

Trollers are small boats with a crew of one or two men. They hand-set multi-hook lines from poles that are lowered out over the water. As the vessel moves through the fishing grounds, the fish are hooked, removed from the hook, gutted, and placed on ice until sold. King salmon are usually caught this way.

Gillnetters are small boats with one or two men onboard. They set long nets that have been designed so the fish will swim into them. The fish become tangled in the net and as the net is pulled onto the boat, the crew removes the fish and packs them on ice. Sockeye, chum, and coho are typically caught in this fashion.

Purse seiners are large vessels that work with an open skiff. With five or more crew members, seiners catch large quantities of fish. A large open net is set by a skiff that tows one end off the stern of the seiner while the other end of the net remains onboard. After a period of time, the two boats close into a circle which creates a “purse,” trapping the salmon. Pink salmon are caught this way.

Yes, it was a genuine Alaskan summer. We had lots of rain, mist, fog, an occasional tease of sunshine, and an abundance of magical moments. After the breaching whales, bears feeding, eagles soaring, and glaciers calving, however, our exposure to commercial salmon fishing left us with a new and curiosity-driven approach to the seafood that we regularly eat. We were left fascinated by the salmon’s journey, where it came from, how it was raised, and how it was caught. It also left us with a deep respect for the fishermen who toil in Alaska’s marginal weather and unpredictable seas to bring that fresh, flavorful fish to our table.

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