Salmon — the common name for several fish species in the family Salmonidae — is perhaps Alaska’s most abundant resource, next to T-shirt shops, as well as its most important, next to drive-thru espresso.
In addition to its popularity as a sport fish, salmon forms the backbone of Alaska’s commercial fishing industry, eclipsed in its economic importance only by reality TV shows about Alaska’s commercial fishing industry.
Typically, salmon are “anadromous.” They are born in fresh water, migrate to the ocean, then return to fresh water to reproduce, often to the exact same place of their birth. Sort of like how college kids move back in with their parents after graduation.
Scientists believe this remarkable homing behavior, in which salmon find their way across vast expanses of ocean, depends on olfactory memory. This makes sense — you can smell a spawned-out salmon stream from a thousand miles away.
Salmon are also known for their cultural significance, ecological importance and surprising deliciousness when grilled with maple syrup and butter.
Wild salmon live along the coasts of the North Atlantic — one species, Salmo salar — and Pacific Oceans — several species of the genus Oncorhynchus.
Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha)
Also known as king, blackmouth or 50-rod-hours-and-I-still-haven’t-gotten-one-damn salmon. The largest of all Pacific salmon, kings frequently exceed 30 lbs., except in stories about ones that got away, in which they weigh 75-80 lbs., easy. Many people in bush Alaska rely on king salmon for survival. Failed king salmon runs, like summer 2012’s, spell disaster for thousands and there’s nothing funny about that. There is something funny about the YouTube video where an orca eats half a king off some dude’s fishing line then keeps trying to come up on the boat to get other half (seriously, check it out - http://bit.ly/JA7dq).
Chum salmon (Oncoryhncus keta)
More commonly known as dog salmon, but marketed as “Silverbite salmon.” Despite being extremely plentiful in Alaska, they are the least commercially valuable. Perhaps it’s time for a new marketing name. How about “Salmon Ultra” — sticks with you, right? Or get KFC to offer it with bacon, melted cheese and secret sauce pinched between two fried chicken filets — the Chum Salmon Double Down (or Chumble Down, for short). Can’t miss.
Coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch)
Also known as silver salmon, or “the cute one.” Coho is an important commercial, sport and subsistence species, regarded as excellent table fare. Unless you get distracted drinking beer and leave it on the grill too long. Again. Spawning male cohos may develop strongly hooked snouts and large teeth, which can make for bloodied fingers, if you get distracted drinking beer while putting it on the stringer. Again.
Pink salmon (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha)
Known as “humpies” in Alaska, “canned” salmon everywhere else. It is the smallest Pacific species and most abundant — sort of like the Honda Civic. Still, it is a mainstay of the commercial industry, also like the Honda Civic. Alaskans generally do not consider pink salmon a sport fish deserving of their table, unless they’ve got out-of-town guests who won’t know the difference and the kings aren’t biting. When spawning, male humpies turn reddish in color and develop humped backs and hooked jaws. They also start using cheesy pickup lines like “migrate here often?” and “your fish weir or mine?”
Sockeye salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka)
Also called red salmon for the deep red color they take on during spawning (as well as their communist political ideology). Unlike the other Pacific salmon species, sockeye feed extensively on zooplankton, as opposed to eating baitfish. This diet may be the reason for sockeye’s striking orange-red flesh, as well as its firmer texture and stronger flavor — the same reason why human cannibals prefer vegetarians .
Exist. That’s about as nice a thing as most Alaskans will say about Atlantic salmon, and that’s if they’re feeling charitable.
If common Alaskan bumper stickers are to be believed, friends don’t let friends eat farmed salmon. But then, according to another common Alaskan bumper sticker, if it can’t be farmed, it must be mined, when blatantly “it” can also be fished. Incidentally, “it” can also be gathered, hunted, logged, created in a laboratory, fabricated in a plant and/or written as a novel by Stephen King. That still doesn’t make eating farmed salmon ok.
Salmon reproduce in freshwater streams, typically at northern latitudes. A growing trend, most salmon opt for a “water birth.”
Baby salmon, or “salmon fry” (not to be confused with “salmon bake,” which are those all-you-can-eat tourist places), spend six months to three years in streams before becoming smolts. At this point, they leave home for the ocean to become sexually mature — sort of like salmon Rumspringa.
Prior to spawning, salmon undergo certain physical changes (refer to your eighth-grade health book for specifics). All salmon change color, likely because they stop eating before they spawn (way too nervous!).
In most cases, spawning salmon return to the same rivers where they were spawned. Scientists still do not know for certain why salmon head back to their birthplace to reproduce, but it probably has to do with all the free childcare from grandma and grandpa.
All species of Pacific salmon exhibit the trait of “semelparity,” meaning they die within a several days of spawning. Sort of puts in perspective the human tendency to fall sleep after. A spawned out salmon doesn’t ever wake. But it also don’t snore, so…
Alaskan salmon are keystone species in that they support a wide range of life from birds to bears to marine mammals to Whole Foods shoppers in the Lower 48.
Both as carcasses and in the feces of predators, salmon transfer nutrients from the ocean to the forest, particularly nitrogen, sulfur, carbon and phosphorous. It’s a dirty job...
While the population of wild salmon has declined markedly in recent decades, especially in the Pacific Northwest, thanks to careful management — as mandated by the state constitution — Alaska fishery stocks are still abundant and commercial harvests plentiful.
Should populations of wild salmon in Alaska ever decline, the population of Subway franchises is increasing, so the two will likely offset each other.
• “Slack Tide” appears every other Sunday in Neighbors. Read more of Geoff Kirsch’s writing at www.geoffkirsch.com.