Wild Pacific Salmon
The fishermen of Fairweather Fish catch and sell all five species of
wild Alaska salmon: chinook, coho, sockeye, pink and chum. Each of
these species has its own life history and its own habitat
requirements, and each has its own unique characteristics and uses as a
delicious source of food.
All five salmon species benefit from a resource
management system that emphasizes conservation, and ensures that enough fish migrate upstream to spawn (reproduce) and sustain the fisheries. And because they
migrate freely at sea, these wild salmon eat other wild marine life.
Swimming free makes Alaskan wild salmon strong, and gives their flesh
its firm texture. Because they swim in the open ocean they are free
from the parasitic afflictions of farm fish and are less likely to
contract diseases spread in enclosed fish farm spaces.
Chinook salmon are the largest of the Pacific salmon, and richly
deserve their common name, king salmon. In their four to seven
years of life, they grow to an average of over 15 pounds, but it is not
unusual to see them over 30 pounds. One CSMA fisherman, Joe
Craig, once caught a 64 pound king salmon near Elfin Cove which was the
record fish of that year. The next day, however, another CSMA
fisherman, Dennis Montgomery beat him with a 65-pounder. The
troll fishery in southeast Alaska usually targets kings for a few weeks
in July and perhaps a week in August.
After hatching from the gravel, usually in large mainland rivers, the
young king salmon spend about six months feeding and growing in
freshwater before migrating to sea. In the ocean, kings migrate
vast distances, traveling a thousand miles or more in each of their two
to five years at sea. Because they cover such great distances,
many of the kings caught in Alaska originate in rivers in Washington,
Oregon, or British Columbia.
Chinook are the least abundant of the Pacific salmon species.
Their dependence on large rivers for spawning and rearing habitat
limits the number of kings produced coastwide. Habitat
degradation, including hydroelectric dams which block downstream
migration of juveniles, and upstream migration of spawning adults, has
further reduced chinook abundance. Consequently, both commercial
and sport fisheries are restricted in how many kings they can harvest,
with management agencies paying careful attention to returning enough
spawners to the rivers to sustain the runs.
When they enter the rivers on their return migration, chinook stop
feeding, and live on their stored fat. To prepare for this
migration, they feed heavily and store energy in their flesh as oil,
rich in heart-friendly omega-3 fatty acids. Their large size and
oil-rich flesh make kings ideal for grilling, either as filets or as
steaks. Kings also make luxuriously rich smoked salmon.
Another favorite species of both the commercial troll fishery and
the sport fisheries, most coho caught in southeast Alaska originate
locally, in the streams of the Tongass National Forest. Coho
usually spend one year as juveniles in the streams, where they depend
on cold clear water, and on the cover provided by the riparian
vegetation. Through the diligent efforts of fishermen and others
concerned with habitat quality, most of southeast Alaska remains
forested, and the pristine streams support healthy coho populations.
In the spring of their second year, coho migrate to sea, where they
spend about 18 months feeding and growing before returning to
spawn. On their return migration, they feed voraciously, more
than doubling their weight in the last few months of their life from an
average of about 5 pounds in early July to over 8 or 9 pounds in
September, occasionally reaching up to 20 pounds before they spawn.
Like kings, coho are also excellent grilled, baked or smoked.
Although sockeye salmon are not commonly caught by trollers, Cross
Sound lies on the migration route for several of the largest sockeye
runs in southeast Alaska, and a limited number of sockeye are taken by
the Fairweather Fish trollers.
Sockeye are the only species of Pacific salmon that require freshwater
lakes for rearing habitat, so they are produced only in systems
draining lakes. The young spend a year or two feeding on plankton
in the lake before they migrate downstream. While at sea, they
continue their plankton-feeding habits, and grow to an average of five
or six pounds before returning to spawn.
Adult sockeye spend a month or more in their lake, ripening up their
eggs before spawning, and because they do not feed when they reach
freshwater, they live off of reserves of oil in their flesh. That
oil gives them a rich flavor and an unmistakable texture.
Although many sockeye caught in Alaska are canned, those caught by the
Fairweather Fish trollers in Cross Sound are sold fresh or
frozen. Sockeye are also called red salmon because of the deep
coral color of their firm meat. They can be grilled, oven-baked
The smallest of the Pacific salmon, averaging about three pounds in
size, pinks, or humpies, are caught mostly by net fishermen in Alaska,
and processed in canneries. Yet some trollers also catch pinks,
which can be sold fresh or frozen.
Pinks spawn in streams of all sizes in southeast Alaska.
Immediately after hatching, the young migrate downstream to the
estuary, and then to sea, where they feed on plankton and small
fish. Like clockwork, pinks return in their second year of life,
so even-year and odd-year pinks spawn as separate populations.
Because they do not spend much time in the streams, they can spawn in
even small seasonal streams that might dry up in the summer, and they
are by far the most abundant salmon in Alaska. On their return
migration, the pinks are so abundant that the waters of southeast
Alaska come alive with schools of pink salmon.
The light, delicate flesh of the pink salmon can be baked and takes on
the flavor of herbs that it is cooked with. Leftovers (if
you have any) can be used in salads and sandwiches.
Like the pinks, chum salmon spend very little time in the streams,
and migrate to sea shortly after hatching. Their diet at sea is
similar to that of pink salmon, but they remain at sea longer – some up
to age 5 – before returning to spawn, and they grow to 10 pounds or
In many areas, chum are caught by net fisheries, near their spawning
streams, where the fish are dark and the flesh is pale. In Cross
Sound, however, trollers catch chum while they are ocean-bright, and
the meat is good quality. The filets can be baked, and they lend
themselves well to smoking. In addition, chum salmon are prized
for their large eggs, which are processed into caviar, primarily for
You can find more information on these species at: