Salmon are famous for their migratory travel, tenaciously swimming up rivers to spawn, jumping waterfalls, and braving hungry bears and hopeful anglers. Born in fresh water, they migrate downriver as juveniles and spend their adult lives feeding in the open ocean. They return to their birthplace to lay their own eggs. But they deliver more than eggs to their natal streams. Pacific salmon die after spawning, and their decaying bodies enrich the streams and forests with important marine-derived nutrients - sometimes hundreds of miles from the sea.
The few large rivers and thousands of streams of Southeast Alaska collectively produce millions of salmon. Streams small enough to step across are visited by spawning salmon, and some salmon lay their eggs in the intertidal areas of tiny streams. The short, steep coastal streams contribute the majority of the salmon to Southeast waters. By caring for watersheds and critical spawning habitat and carefully managing the harvest of adults, Alaska has maintained healthy salmon populations and sustainable fisheries. No populations of Alaska salmon are listed as threatened or endangered.
Salmon are an important food for many Alaskans. Sport fishing is a popular pastime, but it's not entirely recreational. Some of those fish - smoked, canned or frozen - feed families during the winter. Many Alaskans practice personal use and subsistence fishing, netting or catching salmon for a significant portion of their diet.
Commercial salmon fishing brings hundreds of millions of dollars to Alaska each year, in many cases supporting family-owned boats and a family-business lifestyle. These fishing boats can be seen throughout most of the Alaska summer plying the waters with nets and lines.
There are five species of Pacific salmon in Alaska. All are routinely referred to by at least two common names. There are important differences between the species: some, like pinks, grow to just three or four pounds and spawn after just two years at sea; others, like chinook may spend six or seven years at sea and weigh 50 to 80 pounds. Salmon undergo dramatic physical changes when spawning. They change color, and in most cases the males develop hooked jaws.
Chinook, or king salmon, are the largest, and are the legends of long-distance migrations. Kings average between 20 and 40 pounds, but larger fish are not uncommon. The state record sport-caught king was 97 pounds, and a king caught commercially in Petersburg topped the scales at 126 pounds.
Coho, or silver salmon, average eight to 12 pounds. Coho and king salmon are the most popular sport fish. Coho fight aggressively and acrobatically when hooked. Fresh from the sea, coho are beautiful, dime-bright silver fish.
Chum, or dog salmon, average from seven to 18 pounds. Some chums spawn in the intertidal waters and small coastal streams, while others travel hundreds of miles upriver. Chums have the widest distribution of all Pacific salmon and are found throughout coastal Alaska and in every major river system. Spawning chum salmon develop vivid vertical stripes on their sides.
Pink salmon, or humpies, are the smallest salmon, and named because spawning males develop a pronounced humpback. Pinks are the most abundant salmon in Alaska and an important commercial fish, with catches reaching 140 million fish in a season.
Sockeye, or red salmon, are so named because they turn a scarlet or maroon red on the back and sides when spawning. Sockeye are a prized food fish and average six to eight pounds. They are associated with freshwater systems with lakes, and some populations of sockeyes (called kokanee) spend their entire lives landlocked in lakes.