Working for Alaska's Salmon Future Today

A king without a crown: Chinook vulnerable to ocean forces

January 7th, 2014 | Posted by Alaska Salmon Alliance in News
By Abby Lowell, Morris News Service-Alaska/Juneau Empire

Editor’s note: This is the ninth in the Morris Communications series “The case for conserving the Kenai king salmon.”

Alaska’s long-lived monarch — the king salmon — has fallen from its throne.

The species, which once thrived as a fabled ruler in state waters, was sought-after by fisherman from all over the world. Their massive presence in rivers like the Kenai, the Yukon and the Taku, to name only a few, brought sport and commercial fisherman to banks and river mouths for a chance to harvest this mighty resource.

The largest known king — weighing in at 126.5 pounds — was caught in a fish trap off Prince of Wales Island in Southeast Alaska in 1938.

Today, fish of that caliber are seemingly nonexistent. Alaska has seen unprecedented declines in recent years resulting in declarations of economic disasters in some regions, or simply empty freezers in others. Researchers, management officials, commercial fisherman, subsistence users and sport fisherman are coming to the same conclusion — the fish are fewer and the sizes smaller.

That’s why scientists like Joe Orsi and Jim Murphy, both fisheries research biologists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, are digging deeper into decades of research to put forth evidence and findings that may lead to a solution or at least a clue to the cause of the startling downward trend.

Orsi has studied chinook salmon, Oncorhynchus tshawytscha, for nearly his entire career. As part of NOAA’s Ecosystem Monitoring and Assessment Program he has helped to gather data for the Southeast Alaska Coastal Monitoring project, which aims to understand and examine ocean conditions and the factors that affect king salmon. He and his team have collected and sampled juvenile salmon, as well as any data they may be packing, migrating through Southeast Alaska waters since 1997.

He said the first step to understanding what factors and forces may be affecting the chinook is to take a look at the ecological niche they occupy.

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