Amazing life cycle of sockeyes feeds an army of Alaska critters

NAKNEK — Alaskans fish for salmon. Alaska tourists fish for salmon. The Kenai Peninsula is inundated with fishermen, who come from around the world. Travelers on the Seward Highway can be forgiven if they believe the entire city of Anchorage moves to the Kenai on weekends this time of year.

Up north, the Richardson Highway south of Fairbanks is filled with pickups carrying dipnetters to the Chitina fishery. Fishermen target all five species of Pacific salmon, but the most desirable fish for most Alaskans is the sockeye salmon.

Sockeyes are commonly called red salmon. Contrary to popular belief, the name "sockeye" has nothing to do with the salmon's eye. Sockeye comes from the language of the indigenous people who live on the Lower Fraser River in Canada. Their word, suk-kegh, means "red fish" because sockeye salmon turn bright red when they return to their freshwater spawning streams. Before they begin to turn color, the fish are considered the most desirable for the table.

For the most part, sockeyes are targeted shortly after they move from the ocean into their home streams. However, some people also fish for sockeyes during active spawning. Red fish have pale flesh, in sharp contrast to the bright orange normally associated with these salmon, and the taste of these spawning reds is rather bland and has little oil content.

Salmon stop feeding when returning to freshwater streams. They live on the oil and nutrients stored in their bodies during their time in the ocean. Reds feed primarily on zooplankton during their ocean stint. The accumulated nutrients are released from their bodies as they decompose after spawning.

Eggs not buried in gravel to hatch are eaten by birds and other fish — and this nutrient cycle is extremely important to the health of our streams, lakes and all that depend on water resources. Animals, birds and people all depend on the returning salmon.

Returning sockeyes begin to arrive on the Alaska coast in May. Runs from different river systems show at various times throughout the summer, but one of the latest runs is in the Gulkana River system at Paxson. Some upper Gulkana bound fish don't show on the spawning grounds until early October. Birds, bears and foxes all eagerly await returning reds. Gulls, grayling, char and rainbow trout feed on salmon eggs.


10,000 eggs per fish

The eggs are laid in a gravel bed nest called a redd, which the female sockeye scrapes out with her tail. Larger females commandeer the best locations — which, for sockeyes, are shallow riffles with fast water. The biggest males are the most successful fertilizing eggs.

Female reds may lay as many as 10,000 eggs, although relatively few survive to hatch. Stream disturbance by predators, high water, low water and winter freezing all contribute to nest failures.

Soon after the eggs hatch, alevins stay burrowed in the gravel until the egg sack is absorbed. Then they emerge as fry, moving to lakes where they spend the first one to three years of their lives, depending on the river system and the brood stock. The fry grow to between 3 and 6 inches, feeding on plankton and insects. Seemingly everything in their home lake eats the growing smolt.

When ready, the smolt head to the ocean. Gulls, beluga whales and a plethora of other aquatic creatures feed on the migrating hoards.

Small sockeyes that reach the ocean grow quickly on the plentiful food there. They will add several pounds of weight their first year. The suk-kegh spend one to three years in salt water before heading for their home stream.

Seldom do more than three fish, from the 10,000 eggs laid, survive to return from the ocean. They are able to find their way through miles of ocean by magnetic orientation, celestial orientation and the remembered smell of their natal stream.

Prices vary widely

Red salmon are able to recognize the smell of their home stream's scent with as little as one drop of water in 250 gallons.

Returning sockeye are heavily targeted in the ocean by commercial fishermen — and about two-thirds of the worldwide commercial sockeye production comes from Alaska. Canada and Russia account for most of the rest. Canada's Fraser River and Russia's Ozernaya River on the Kamchatka Peninsula are the largest producers.

Sockeyes are seldom farmed. Though they are a high-dollar product, they mature slowly in comparison to other Pacific salmon. There is one inland facility in Langley, British Columbia, that has been producing a limited number of reds since 2013.

Price fluctuation also plays a critical role. In the last four years, the price for reds has jumped to $1.50 per pound, sunk to 55 cents and bounced back to 80 cents, where it sits currently. It's tough to bet the salmon farm on that much variation.

Commercial salmon production and commercial salmon fishing may be a risky business, but fishing for personal use, subsistence and sport fishing are not.  Salmon in the Chitina and some of the rivers on the Kenai are plentiful enough to dipnet.

Gear up, the suk-kegh are coming home.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.

John Schandelmeier

Outdoor opinion columnist John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.