The Geography of Salmon

If you were looking at a map of Alaska, with the word “SALMON” in mind, your eyes might drift down to Southeast Alaska, envisioning thousands of pink and chum salmon, thrashing around in the bulging net of a seiner.

Or you might look further north to Bristol Bay and think of bright red skeins of sockeye threading their way home. Perhaps you’d glance even further north to the Yukon River, and marvel at the incredibly long up-river migration — as much as 2,000 miles — that some returning king salmon make to reach their natal streams.

Perhaps you’d also notice that there’s a commercial chum salmon fishery all the way up in Kotzebue Sound.

But if you’re like me — firmly rooted in your own salmon corner of the state — your eyes might never wander up to the northernmost part of Alaska, along the Chukchi and Beaufort Sea coasts.

“Salmon in the high Arctic?” you might think. “It’s too cold and icy up there.”

I thought so too, until a recent trip to Alaska’s northern coast, where I witnessed an active salmon fishery in Elson Lagoon — a brackish estuary not far from the community of Barrow. Gillnets were stretched optimistically into the cold, dark water. People fished patiently from shore with rod and reel. Fishermen showed me their catches of pink and chum salmon.

And I was amazed to learn that all five species of Pacific salmon — including chinook, coho, and even sockeye — have been caught in Alaska’s arctic waters.

Arctic People and Salmon

In the Siberian arctic, salmon have been a part of the native diet and culture since prehistoric times. When ancestral migrants came across the Bering Land Bridge, they may have brought their knowledge of salmon to what is now Alaska.

As far back as the Point Barrow Expedition of 1881–83, ethnographer John Murdoch noted the presence of pink and sockeye salmon in Elson Lagoon, and an 1883 report from the Revenue-Steamer Corwin documented pink salmon in the Colville River farther east along the arctic coast.

Interestingly, the Inupiaq language has a word for pink salmon (Amaqtuuq), and the name for chum salmon (Iqalugruaq) is also used for chinook, but there are no specific words for sockeye or coho salmon. In the western Canadian arctic, the Dene and Inuit people only have names for chum salmon, suggesting that the other species, if present in the past, might have been rare.

Compared to areas farther south, relatively few salmon are caught by villagers along the arctic coasts from Russia to Canada, and salmon have only been a small part of the subsistence diet for Alaska’s Inupiaq villagers.

But this is changing. In Barrow, for example, subsistence use of salmon is increasing.

Barrow fisherman Bob Brouillette with a chum salmon freshly pulled from his gillnet in Elson Lagoon. (Photo credit: Liz McKenzie

lson Lagoon Fishery

As with all things summer in the Arctic, the fishing season is short. Near Barrow, gillnets are set in Elson Lagoon as soon as the sea ice retreats enough so the nets won’t be damaged by moving floes. Length of the fishing season varies from year to year, usually beginning in June and ending with the September freeze-up.

During the season, fishermen drive the sandy road from town each day in trucks or 4-wheelers. Some of them check their nets by slogging out into the cold water in chest waders, others use small dinghies, or they use a pulley system to haul their nets onto shore for inspection.


Currents and winds in Elson Lagoon can be very strong, so Barrow residents anchor the shoreward ends of their gillnets with heavy weights or with stakes like this metal pole. (Photo credit: Liz McKenzie)

Constantly changing marine conditions in Elson Lagoon affect the movements of fish, so daily catches are also variable. Along with pink, chum and chinook salmon, fishermen also take other fish in their nets, such as broad whitefish, least cisco, char, starry flounder, and dolly varden.

Most salmon are taken in July and August. The percentages of pink, chum and chinook taken each year change from year to year, again reflecting the high variability of the arctic marine environment. However, pinks and chums consistently represent the majority of the salmon catch. Sockeye are occasionally taken, but only a few verified coho have been caught — sea-bright, silvery chums are sometimes mistaken for cohos.


Caught in a gillnet near Barrow, this pink salmon has begun changing from ocean silver to the classic green and ivory hues of a spawner. (Photo credit: Liz McKenzie)

Lessons in Arctic Survival

The most common Pacific salmon species in the Arctic — chums and pinks — are found from Siberia to western Canada. Adults of all five species are found throughout the Arctic, with coho salmon being the most rare.

As far as reproduction goes, it’s difficult to know for sure what’s happening; there are inconsistencies even in the scientific literature. While other species of salmon in spawning condition have been observed, most sources agree that only pinks and chums spawn successfully in the Arctic beyond Point Hope. Chums are the only salmon that definitely reproduce in Canada’s sprawling Mackenzie River system, and some returning chums migrate almost 1,300 miles upstream, nearly rivaling the epic migration of some Yukon River kings.

The relative abundance of pink and chum salmon in the Arctic makes sense from the standpoint of their life cycles. Coho, sockeye and king salmon take up to several years developing in freshwater before they migrate to the ocean, and the overwintering conditions in arctic river systems may be too harsh for young salmon to survive. Pinks and chums on the other hand, move rapidly into salt water after emerging as fry from the gravels, and so avoid potentially lethal freshwater winter temperatures.

It’s hard to imagine that any salmon eggs can survive the arctic winter. The eggs must be deposited in places where the water won’t freeze, so apparently they are laid in areas with groundwater upwelling or springs, where the water is warm enough to make the critical difference.

There are also some interesting theories about how arctic salmon spend the winter from the time they leave natal streams until they return to spawn.

James Irvine and his colleagues studied Mackenzie River chums and proposed several possible winter survival strategies. One suggests that the salmon are brought by currents into the warmer waters of the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska — where they remain to feed and grow until it’s time to return to the arctic to spawn.

Like their southern salmon cousins, these fish might range widely through the seasons. For example, chum salmon spend several years feeding in the ocean, so they might even dip into the Gulf of Alaska during the colder winter months, and then circle back into the Bering Sea in the warmer months, as some other populations of salmon do.

In another scenario, chums from the Mackenzie River would winter in the Beaufort Sea, taking advantage of relatively warm Atlantic currents running deep below the sea ice.

A third possibility is that chums could survive by moving into deep coastal lakes, groundwater upwelling in streams, or perhaps the freshwater plume flowing out from the Mackenzie River. These strategies would allow the fish to avoid lethally cold saline seawater that can fall below 32 degrees in winter.


Sea-bright chum salmon caught in Arctic waters. (Photo credit: Craig George)

Of course, none of these theories explain why kings, cohos, and sockeye are found in the Arctic. If they can’t spawn successfully — why are they there? We don’t know for sure, but salmon do wander and there are nearby populations of salmon south of arctic waters. They may be attempting to colonize new areas or perhaps just following the food trail, since there’s lots of prey available for these fish, especially in the summer.

The Million-Dollar Question

With climate change, warming temperatures, and dramatic changes in the sea ice, there is a lot of interest in the possibility that salmon are increasing in the Arctic.

Will more salmon populate these waters in the future? Will other salmon species spawn successfully in arctic rivers? Could there be a productive commercial harvest of arctic salmon in the future?

There aren’t any definitive answers to these questions yet, but there have been some tantalizing studies and observations.

In communities all along the northern coast, fishermen have reported observing more salmon. Is this because fish populations have grown or perhaps because fishing effort has increased so that people encounter salmon more often?

On the research front, in the summer of 2007 biologists found higher numbers of juvenile pink and chum salmon in the Bering Strait and Chukchi Sea compared to farther south in the eastern Bering Sea. The far northern fish were also larger, suggesting more rapid growth.

Interestingly, in that year the sea surface temperatures were above normal and sea ice coverage was below normal. These conditions likely created favorable conditions for high quality prey benefitting juvenile salmon.

Perhaps even more intriguing is that the following summer, people in Barrow saw a significant spike in the salmon catch from Elson Lagoon — 20,000 salmon were caught in the gillnets, with the vast majority being pink salmon. As one Barrow resident remembers, ”They were hitting hard. For the 24-hour net pull, you’d have 20 or 30 fish in there. That’s most extraordinary by our standards.”

Gillnets strategically placed to intercept fish along the shore of Elson Lagoon near Barrow. (Photo credit: Liz McKenzie

ince pink salmon spend one year at sea before returning to spawn, it’s not difficult to make a connection between all those juvenile salmon observed in 2007 and the large return in 2008.

Researchers would like to understand the conditions that favored higher survival of salmon during that period, because if those conditions are repeated in the future, it’s one indicator that salmon could increase in the Arctic.

One thing we know for sure is that salmon have a history of successful colonization. Salmon have vanished from some areas when advancing glacial ice buried their spawning streams, but then recolonized those streams when the ice retreated. Also, because of their short life cycle, in some years when pink salmon spawning fails because of poor stream conditions, fish may re-colonize the following year if conditions improve.

For now, arctic temperatures can certainly be a limiting factor. Also, salmon need suitable freshwater habitat for spawning and egg development, and for species like coho, chinook and sockeye, ice-free freshwater habitats are needed for overwintering.

Growing salmon require lots of food, so they will benefit if conditions become more favorable for increased productivity. But this could also bring increased competition from other marine species. And then there’s the question of predators in the changing arctic system.

There are concerns too about changes in arctic ecology. Could increased numbers of salmon affect the populations of important keystone species like arctic and saffron cod? If that happened, how would it impact other species of fish and marine mammals that prey on cod?

Even now in the Elson Lagoon fishery, not everyone views salmon as a good thing — they can clog nets meant for other species like broad whitefish and Arctic cisco, which many villagers prefer over salmon. Some fishermen even pull their nets during high pink salmon runs.

Other considerations include the effects on the marine environment from oil and gas exploration, increased shipping and other changes that are pending for the Arctic.

Back from the Future

These are all big questions that will only be answered sometime in the future.

For now, just as in other parts of Alaska, villagers on the far northern coasts will continue to catch and share their salmon.

They’ll enjoy salmon baked, boiled, grilled, fried, smoked, and dried. Some salmon will be vacuum-sealed and frozen. But many people in arctic Alaska prefer to eat their pink salmon fresh, as the frozen-then-cooked pinks are not considered very appetizing — which may sound familiar to salmon connoisseurs in other regions of the state.

It’s a good reminder that salmon are like a living thread that stitches our lives and cultures and communities together — from southeast Alaska, northward along our coasts and rivers and lakes. All the way up to the Arctic.


As hopeful as any young fisherman, an Inupiaq girl from Barrow casts her line from America’s northernmost shore. (Photo credit: J.J. Vollenweider)

By Liz McKenzie for SalmonWorld