Sockeye Salmon: The Scarlet Treasure
I had run my skiff up into a narrowing, fjord-like bay with shear mountain walls on either side. Streamers of cloud wrapped around the bedrock peaks and emerald alpine meadows. At the head of the bay, a long and very deep lake emptied into a stream that plunged over a waterfall into saltwater. Amid all this splendor, there were sockeye salmon making prodigious leaps, trying to clear the falls.
What is it, I wondered, that makes the sight of these fish so hypnotic, so compelling?
Maybe it’s the quintessential beauty of watching bright salmon, newly arrived from the sea, erupting into graceful arcs and vanishing into the whitewater.
Or maybe it’s the sheer determination of the fish, flinging themselves upward again and again, willing to die rather than fail. There is only one future…and it lies above the barrier.
And maybe the leaping salmon trigger our own predatory desires, to snatch this brilliant living flesh from midair and carry it to the campfire.
Probably it’s all of these…plus whatever else we know about the delicious, immeasurably valuable treasure of sockeye salmon.
After they hatch and emerge from their nest in a stream bed, young sockeyes spend one to several years in the quiet, cold waters of a lake. Safe from ocean predators, they feed on tiny animals like zooplankton and insects; but to reach adult size they need the abundant food that’s only available at sea.
Minnowy sockeye smolts migrate downstream and out into the Gulf of Alaska, where their growth quickens on a diet of plankton, crustacean larvae, and small fish. Over the next one to four years, sockeyes travel thousands of miles in the vast counterclockwise sweep of the Alaska gyre.
Finally, an imperative that must be woven through every cell in a salmon’s body urges the fish homeward, perhaps guided by the sun’s position or by an internal magnetic compass. Their highly predictable return is timed for ideal spawning conditions.
It’s fascinating to imagine huge schools gathering from the distant reaches of the North Pacific, converging toward the home coast, eventually funneling into streams where the fish were born. This is among the greatest of all animal migrations, yet it’s completely invisible — hidden by the often-stormy sea.
Sockeyes are usually the first salmon at the rivermouths each summer, and their arrival is a key point in the year for communities all along the North Pacific coast.
As they approach the land, many end up in fishermen’s nets. Others are taken by predators — killer whales, sharks, porpoises, sea lions, harbor seals.
In fact, I’ve spotted seals hunting for sockeyes, bobbing up between dives, fixing their huge midnight eyes toward me. In past years, I’ve caught salmon with deep gashes in their flanks…bloody evidence of close calls with the seals.
The sockeye life cycle has much in common with other salmon, but with a couple of unique twists. Most importantly, unlike their relatives, sockeyes nearly always spawn in watersheds that include lakes. The same lakes that provide habitat for young sockeyes are also used by returning adults, who linger for a month or two before they spawn along the gravelly lakeshores or in slow moving feeder streams.
Anyone who has hooked or netted a sockeye salmon knows of its exceptional power and fighting ability. Restrained in your hands, the fish bends sharply back and forth as if it’s trying to swim. You feel the quick, dense muscles and an indescribable quivering intensity.
A filet knife reveals the vivid crimson meat that helps to explain why sockeyes are often called “red salmon” or simply “reds.” In fact, that intriguing word — sockeye — is probably from the Coast Salish name, suggegh, meaning “red fish.”
As they approach spawning, it’s as if the fiery color inside smolders out into the light. At the peak of breeding, sockeyes embody everything that’s spectacular about salmon. Arrayed across their spawning beds, they look like hundreds of scarlet ribbons weaving through the clear, cold water, suspended above the mosaic of multicolored pebbles.
It seems that fish so brilliant as these should be schooling around a coral reef in the tropics. But here they are, in chill northern streams with bald eagles crying overhead, with tracks of brown bears and wolves on the sandbars.
In any case, like other salmon, a female sockeye uses her tail to excavate a shallow depression where an accompanying male fertilizes her emerging eggs. She does this in several nests…and within a few weeks, she and her male consorts will die, leaving a legacy of nutrients to fertilize the waters where their young will grow. And eventually, these offspring will head out to sea — shimmering silver jewels destined to become one of earth’s great living treasures.
Where the conditions are right, sockeyes can be as abundant as they are beautiful. But compared to the other native salmon — king, coho, chum, and pink — they have a limited and patchy range. On the west coast, their main spawning grounds stretch from Oregon up to Bristol Bay, and intermittently as far north as the arctic. On the other side of the Pacific they range from Siberia to Kamchatka and northern Japan.
Two places are most famous as world headquarters of sockeye salmon. One is the Fraser River in southern British Columbia, where seriously depleted runs have partially recovered. The other is Bristol Bay in Alaska — where a sprawling braidwork of rivers and lakes creates the perfect habitat for these fish. Over the past two decades, a yearly average of 38 million sockeyes have flooded into the rivers of Bristol Bay, far more than anywhere else on earth.
For thousands of years, indigenous people living on the North Pacific coast have depended on sockeye salmon. The legendary runs are still a key moment in the subsistence year for Alaskans.
Literally thousands of eager fishermen from Anchorage, Fairbanks, and countless other towns drive to favorite spots along the Kenai, the Copper, the Russian, the Chitina, the Kasilof, and other accessible rivers. Using huge hoop-rimmed dipnets, folks with subsistence and personal use permits stuffed in their pockets sometimes crowd elbow-to-elbow along the shores. In some places other gear is allowed — gillnets, fish wheels, or snag hooks.
The fishermens’ adrenaline-charged diligence pays off. In 2011, Alaskans took home over a million sockeyes. That’s a lot of delectable fish for a lot of smokehouses and dinner tables.
Not surprisingly, far more sockeyes are taken by commercial fishermen using gillnets and purse seines — almost 30 million reds in 2013, worth about $285 million. A combination of large catches and high prices make sockeye the most economically valuable salmon in Alaska. Reds are important throughout Alaska’s southern coasts, but Bristol Bay has by far the world’s largest commercial sockeye fishery.
Lowering clouds brought a drizzly rain, but I wasn’t ready to leave the falls, held there by some intangible hope. I let the skiff drift close to the falls and peered up into the shadowed forest hoping to spot a bear.
Then, at precisely the right moment, I turned toward the waterfall. Almost within touching distance, a sockeye burst up from the plunge pool and carved a perfect arc through the mist and thrash and splatter.
In moments like this, time seems to pause and every detail burns itself into the senses.
I saw the salmon’s thick, bending body; saw its tail flailing against the air; saw droplets fling from its belly and back; saw its jaws, opened and yearning; saw its eye staring up toward the absolute inevitability of the lake beyond.
Then I saw it turn and twist and plunge perfectly into a tiny pool near the roaring apex of the falls. And from there, almost instantly, its dark back and dorsal fin cleaved up through the last of the pouring maelstrom.
And then…after how many thousand miles from the far ocean; after how many near encounters with nets or seals; after how many failed tries and how much exhaustion…
The salmon was victorious and gone.
By Richard Nelson / Encounters Salmonworld
An Encounters radio program recorded at the falls is available by visiting www.encountersnorth.org/archive.htm and choosing Subsistence Salmon.