Chapter 3  Alaska’s Salmon Habitats  

 graphic of watershed regions

Key Concepts


Healthy watersheds are crucial to sustaining Alaska’s wild salmon. Alaska is unique in that it has large quantities of healthy watersheds. We have the ability to sustain salmon populations by understanding and maintaining these watersheds.


Chapter Objectives


Students will be able to describe:

·        geographical areas and terms of the essential environmental elements found in healthy watersheds;

·        how each element contributes to good salmon habitat; and

·        how the elements of salmon habitats are interconnected.

They will also be able to describe:

·        human behavior that can threaten elements of good salmon habitat;

·        steps they and their communities can take to assure healthy salmon spawning, rearing, and growing areas; and

·        the major salmon-producing areas in Alaska.


Terms Students Should Understand


watershed – an area of land in which all the water that falls as snow or rain collects and eventually flows into a larger body of water

habitat partitioning – the natural allocation among different species of salmon of areas in a stream that are suitable for spawning and rearing


Background for Teachers


What’s so important about watersheds?

We all live in a watershed. It is often difficult for students to perceive that their activities have an impact on the places where they live. From rural surface water systems to city water and sewers, students should explore their use of water as part of watershed studies.

While most of Alaska’s watersheds remain healthy, for many students living in metropolitan areas, local impacts on watersheds can be as glaring as in any city. Because we tend to settle along water bodies, human impacts can be greater than we might think.

While industry must have clean waters to function, and regulations exist to assure that point source pollution is in check, often our individual impacts go unnoticed. These cumulative impacts of humans on waters and watersheds are usually from what is called non-point sources. These are general, everyday sources of pollution that can affect the health of watersheds.

An improperly installed sewage system can back up and affect the quality of drinking water in a village. Pet owners walking their dogs along lake shores can lead to closure to swimming. Cat litter discarded along beaches or into streams can spread disease in wildlife. Changing oil in the driveway or spreading waste oil to contain dust on roads can pollute drinking water in an aquifer. The over application of fertilizers on lawns near lakes can lead to explosive growth of water plants and eutrophication (the process by which a body of water becomes enriched in dissolved nutrients that stimulate the growth of aquatic plant life usually resulting in the depletion of dissolved oxygen).

See also Appendix B, Fish Habitat in Alaska, in this guide.

Questions For Discussion


1. How does habitat loss relate to the decline of salmon?

Most biologists agree that loss of habitat is a primary reason for the decline of salmon populations in the Pacific Northwest. The other four “Hs” of salmon loss (listed on the back cover of  Alaska’s Wild Salmon) are all significant in these declines in the Lower 48 and Canada.

In Alaska, the fact that our salmon habitat remains healthy is a primary reason that virtually all of our salmon runs are healthy, year after year. For this to be true, ALL parts of the habitat used in the wild salmon’s life cycle must remain healthy.

2. How will climate change affect salmon habitat?

Scientists do not know.  It is safe to say that there will be changes in salmon populations and production due to climate change, but it is likely that some populations will decline and others increase in number. Remember that salmon are adaptable to some change, but they cannot change their basic habitat needs.

For example, as ocean temperatures warm, all Pacific salmon require more feed to grow. Accordingly, salmon retreat from warmer waters and become more tightly packed and dependent upon the forage resources of the North Pacific. This could strain ocean food resources, leading to fish that spawn later and are smaller in size.

3. The map caption on p. 28 of Alaska’s Wild Salmon states that “in Alaska, small streams produce more salmon than large rivers.” In terms of what you know about the salmon life cycle, is this surprising or not?


Ideas for Activities


1. Ask students to look at stream habitat near their school and decide which salmonid species this system is likely to support.

They can refer to pp. 11-13 of Alaska’s Wild Salmon for habitat requirements of different species, and to p. 23 for information on some species habitat preferences.

2. Assign individuals or a group of students to gather more information about the major salmon producing areas listed on p. 28 of Alaska’s Wild Salmon. Where does their community fit in?

See, among other references:

·   graphs of commercial salmon harvest by region, map showing intensity of sport fishing by region, and use of subsistence resources, in Alaska in Maps: A Thematic Atlas

·   information about salmon harvests on the Divisions of Commercial Fisheries, Sport Fish, and Subsistence on the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game web site - ADF&G

·   information about Alaska communities on the Alaska Department of  Community and Economic Development “Community Database Online” - Community Database Online

3. Have students compile oral histories for possible indications of climate change in their community. Are local glaciers melting rapidly? Have weather patterns changed in recent decades?  Are new or exotic species of fish being caught in local fisheries? Have any stocks of salmon disappeared from local streams?

Students could use the world wide web to see if projected global climate trends relate to specifics of local observations or predictions for local changes.

4. Begin a long-term stream monitoring and habitat assessment project in a local watershed. Plan for it to be maintained annually by subsequent classes.

Resources are available from Jon Lyman, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, (907) 465-6186.

Resources Especially for Teachers


Tom Murdoch and Martha Cheo. 1999. Streamkeeper’s Field Guide. Available from Adopt-a-Stream Foundation, Everett Washington, (206) 316-8592.

This is a complete “how-to” field guide for studying, monitoring, and taking action to preserve and restore streams. It contains detailed information on watersheds, physical characteristics of streams, water quality, underwater invertebrates, and ways to collect and present data.

Alaska Volunteer Biological Monitoring and Assessment Procedures. 2001. Environmental Natural Resources Institute (ENRI), University of Alaska Anchorage. Available from Jon Lyman, Alaska Department of Fish and Game,  (907) 465-6186.

These ENRI protocols are written to establish guidelines for the sampling of benthic macroinvertebrates by students. Their use allows teachers to create long-term water quality projects in schools.

J. Michael Migel. 1974. The Stream Conservation Handbook. General Publishing Company, Ltd.

A sourcebook for ideas on how to help and heal damaged waterways.

Fish Habitat in Alaska – Appendix B of this guide.


Resources for Students and Teachers


Alaska Stream Team, Water Quality Monitoring Field Guide, educational level. 2000. ENRI. Available from Jon Lyman, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, (907) 465-6186.

Student handbook to go with the ENRI protocols on stream monitoring described in the preceding section.

Alden Ford. The Kenai Peninsula’s Amazing Water Maze (groundwater game on CD). Available from Jon Lyman, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, (907) 465-6186.

An award-winning computer game that runs on both Mac and disc systems.

See Alaska in Maps: A Thematic Atlas, produced for Alaska schools, for maps of watersheds, and graphs showing salmon harvests by region.

Copies of this book are available in many classrooms and in most Alaska school libraries.

Community Database Online

The Alaska Dept. of  Community and Economic Development Community Database Online describes economic and other information for every community in Alaska.

“It takes a healthy watershed to raise a fish” – brochure and poster

Available from Jon Lyman, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, (907) 465-6186

Looking Ahead


Ask students to think about ways in which their use of water, and the ways their families and community use water, could affect the five habitat qualities salmon need. The five qualities are listed in the second paragraph on p. 14 of Alaska’s Wild Salmon and in activities for Chapter 2.


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