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King Salmon

Alaskan King SalmonAlaska's state fish, the coveted king salmon, is by far the most desired salmon Alaska has to offer.  They're the largest and scarcest of the five species of Alaska salmon, bearing the highest amounts of Omega-3 oils of all Alaskan salmon. Because of this high oil content, they are considered to be the richest salmon in the world. Furthermore, king salmon one of the most important sport and commercial fish in North America, and the most commercially valuable of the Alaska's five salmon species. They are the king of all salmon.

King salmon are wildly abundant from the southern panhandle of Alaska to as far up the northwest coast as Kotzebue Sound. Considerably large runs also return inland hundreds of miles through the Yukon, Kuskokwim, Nushagak, Susitna, Kenai, Copper, Alsek, Taku, and Stikine rivers, as well as many other streams and rivers.

The Many Names of King Salmon

They're original name, Chinook, is derived from the tribal name of the Indians that once lived along the Columbia River in Washington State.  In the Alaska fisheries, the species is commonly referred to as the king salmon. They are also known as Quinnat, Tyee, Black, Chub, Hook Bill, Winter, Blackmouth, Spring, and Jack salmon. Spring salmon are king salmon which ascend rivers in early to late spring. One year old males are called jacks.

In scientific terms, king salmon is called "Oncorhynchus tshawytscha". The name Oncorhynchus means hooked snout, and tshawytscha is the name given to these fish by the people of the Kamchatka Peninsula, in Russia.

Chinook salmon belong to the family Salmonidae(salmon) and are one of eight species of Pacific salmonids in the genus Oncorhynchus.

Defining Marks of King Salmon

Color

Adult king salmon typically have blue-green backs with bright silvery flanks and white bellies. Their backs, dorsal fin, and tail are marked with black spots. Spawning adults lose their silvery bright coloration and take on an olive-brown to purple coloration, with males looking darker than females, and develop reddish hues around their fins and belly.

Shape

Adult king salmon are a robust looking fish. When they spawn, their teeth become enlarged and their snout develops into a hook. Spawning males will also develop a hooked snout and slightly humped shoulder which is absent in spawning females.

Size

Adult king salmon are typically 25 to 50 pounds with 60 to 80 pound king salmon not uncommon among sport fishermen and commercial catches. They typically range between 2 to 4 feet in length. Because of their size, they're well recognized for their power and endurance.

The largest King salmon ever caught weighed in at 126 pounds. It was caught in a fish wheel near Petersburg, Alaska in 1949. The largest sport-caught king salmon was 97 pounds and caught on the Kenai River in 1985, by Les Anderson. Both of these salmon measured over five feet long!  See all of Alaska's sport-caught salmon records here.

Copper River & Yukon River King Salmon

There are two king salmon in Alaska that are very well recognized. First, is the legendary Copper River king salmon known for it's delicious flavor and high Omega-3 content. This king salmon is especially well received for it is one of the first king salmon fisheries that occurs in mid-May every year. It is celebrated all along the Northwest. Secondly, is the Yukon River king salmon. Nothing short of "amazing" describes this prized salmon. It is by far the richest king salmon in the world. Due to the 2200 miles it must swim to reach its breeding grounds, it has a oil content greater than any other salmon in Alaska. Its incredibly delicious meat is marbled with healthy fats and oils like none other. One bite of this and you will be left in complete awe.

Les Anderson stands next
to his 97 lb. king salmon, caught in the Kenai
River in 1985.

Learn more about:
Yukon River Salmon
Copper River Salmon
Alaska Salmon
Cook Inlet Kings

King Salmon Nutritional Information

Serving size: 100 grams

Calories

231

Protein

25.7 g

Fat

13.3 g

Saturated Fat

3.2 g

Sodium

60 mg

Cholesterol

85 mg

Omega-3

1.7 g

Heart-smart oil content: ~8-12%

Source: Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute

King Salmon Life Cycle

Marbled Yukon King

Alaska King Salmon

Like most salmon, King salmon are anadromous, meaning, they hatch from eggs in fresh water streams and rivers, then migrate to the ocean to mature for several years, and finally return to their fresh waters of their birth to spawn once and then die. King salmon commonly spawn in larger main rivers. They spawn from late summer to late fall, depending on the run. Eggs are laid in deeper water with larger gravel, and need cool water and good water flow (to supply oxygen) to survive. Fry and smolts usually stay in freshwater from 1 to 18 months before traveling downstream to estuaries, where they remain up to 6 months before venturing out into the ocean. King salmon spend 1 to 8 years at sea before returning to home streams to spawn, though the average is 3 to 4 years.

Learn about the fascinating life
cycle of an Alaska salmon
.

There are different seasonal "runs" (spring, summer, fall, or winter) in the migration of king salmon from the ocean to freshwater. These runs have been identified on the basis of when adult king salmon enter freshwater to begin their spawning migration. However, distinct runs also differ with the degree of maturation at the time of river entry, the thermal regime & flow characteristics of their spawning site, and their actual time of spawning.

Diet & Predators

Adult King salmon are piscivorous, feeding on small fish such as anchovies, herrings, young rockfishes, sand lances, and large zooplankton & aquatic insects as well.

Many wildlife species including eagles, sea lions, sharks, and orca whales rely on salmon as a source of food. Additional threats to king salmon habitats include the destruction and degradation from dams, polluted run-off & silt from farms, logging & mining operations, and urban areas.

Tribal Subsistence Value

With king salmon being a crucial subsistence fish, tribal communities rely heavily upon salmon fisheries in Alaska, for both survival and economic reasons. Salmon has long been a very important element in tribal communities, with catches delivering stores for winter endurance. Salmon fishing is also the basis of many tribal economies with summer salmon fisheries creating supportive revenue for those communities.  Decreases in harvest regulations and declining populations potentially threaten to end economic viability of some tribal fisheries.

Sport Fishery

The king salmon is the most highly prized sport fish in Alaska due to their large size, great fighting abilities, and high-quality meat. Perhaps the most preferred salt water sport-fishing method for king salmon is trolling with rigged herring. Lures and salmon eggs are commonly used by freshwater anglers.

Sport fisheries for king salmon is growing rapidly in Alaska with the sport fishing harvest of king salmon over 76,000 annually. King salmon fishing is very popular in the Southeast and Cook Inlet areas, along with numerous coastal and river lodges throughout Alaska. Notably, Ship Creek & the Kenai River are well known for their "combat fishing" style fisheries where hundreds of fishermen line the banks in hopes of catching a giant Alaska king salmon. Every year, there are several king salmon derbies throughout Alaska where anglers have the chance to win exciting prizes and trophies.

Combat salmon fishing in downtown Anchorage during Ship Creek's king salmon derby.

Commercial Fisheries & Harvests

King salmon are highly valued by commercial fishermen due to their large size, availability, and high-quality flesh.  King salmon caught commercially average about 18 pounds. The majority of the catch is made with troll gear and gillnets. There is an excellent market for king salmon because of their large size and excellent table qualities. Recent catches in Alaska have brought fishermen nearly $19 million per year. The largest commercial catches take place between May-September. They are sold fresh, fresh-frozen or canned.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game predicts a 2008 total harvest of 419,000 Chinook salmon. 

Commercial king salmon fisheries areas include Cook Inlet, Bristol Bay, Copper River, Taku River, Sitkine River, Southeast, Chignik, Yukon River, Kuskokwim River, Prince William Sound, and more.

Management, Conservation, & Sustainability

King salmon fisheries in Alaska were not closely managed before 1970.  In the mid-70s, king salmon stocks were considered depressed relative to historical abundances, and the current phase of king salmon management began. Restrictions on gill-net fisheries and size limits were imposed as well as harvest ceilings.  These ceilings are considered largely responsible for the relative consistency of commercial harvest of king salmon over the past decade.

Whereas West Coast fisheries managers are largely concerned with recovery of king salmon salmon populations, Alaskan managers worry largely about conservation of their "healthy" stocks.  Because king salmon rear in inshore marine waters (unlike other salmon species), they are available to both commercial and shore anglers all year, making them potentially more vulnerable to overfishing.  Catches of king salmon in SE Alaska are regulated by quotas set under the Pacific Salmon Treaty, implemented in 1999.  Other regions of the Alaska fishery are also tightly managed to prevent population declines due to over-harvesting.  Supplemental to Alaska's salmon management plans, the state has also adopted a "sustainable salmon fisheries policy" focusing on protection and conservation.

The Pacific Salmon Treaty, agreed to by the governments of both the U.S. and Canada, holds the committed parties to 3 principles; 1) to conduct its fisheries and salmon enhancement programs to prevent overfishing and provide for optimum production, 2) to cooperate in management, research, and enhancement of Pacific salmon populations, and 3) to take into account avoidance of disruption of existing fisheries and annual variation in stock abundances.

Catches of king salmon in Alaska are regulated by quotas set under the Pacific Salmon Treaty to ensure stocks of king salmon stay at sustainable and healthy levels.

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