Wild Alaskan Coho Salmon (Silver)
Southeast Alaska’s commercial salmon trollers have a special relationship with Wild Alaskan Coho Salmon. Often referred to as “Silvers,” a reference to their very bright scales while still in the ocean, Alaskan Coho return on a 3 year cycle to spawn in their natal streams. For the small-boat commercial salmon trollers of Southeast Alaska like myself, these fish represent the bulk of our catch over a summer’s troll season. Our small-scale, hook-and-line method of catching these fish in the Gulf of Alaska is perfectly suited to harvesting Wild Alaskan Coho one at a time. Without the coho, there would be no small-scale artisanal troll fleet in Southeast Alaska. And without this fleet, there would be no opportunity for the rest of the world to enjoy any of Southeast Alaska’s salmon bounty caught via hook and line, one at a time.
Wild Alaskan Coho start to show up in force on our shores around late June en-route to their spawning grounds in the world’s largest temperate rain forest, the Tongass of Southeast Alaska. One can’t truly know about this fish without first knowing about this forest.
Holding the honor of being the United States’ largest National Forest, the Tongass encompasses an astounding 16.7 million acres spread over the Alexander Archipelago and the dramatic shoreline of Southeast Alaska protected by these islands. Home to vast stands of old growth timber, the Tongass National Forest and the waters that surround it are home to a tremendous array of wildlife, some of which are unique to the region. To get a sense of the scale of this forest, the actual land area covered by the Tongass National Forest is greater than that of the State of West Virginia. Nearly synonymous with the Tongass, the Alexander Archipelago is an island chain that contains about 1,100 islands spread out over 300 miles of Alaska’s coast and is contained almost entirely within the Tongass National Forest. Defined by a border with Canada on the south, and Cape Spencer to the North, the Alexander Archipelago’s islands range from the 4th largest island in the United States (Prince of Wales Island), to nearly countless small and nameless black rocks that jut up from the ocean’s surface. The dramatic nature of the landscape is not easily described, as the skyline of our harbor in Sitka is dominated by a long-dormant volcano to the west, and sheer mountains at our backs. The Tongass National Forest is a temperate rainforest that has an incredible 11,000 miles of shoreline within it, and it is from the mouths of streams and rivers situated along those 11,000 miles where our beloved Wild Alaskan Coho Salmon begin their journey.
Spawned during September or October in one of the estimated 17,000 miles (!) of pristine streams and rivers found throughout the Tongass National Forest, a coho smolt emerges from the clean rocky bottom that sheltered it from 85-115 days after spawning. From there, he spends the next 16 months in his natal stream, feeding first on the tiny bugs and organisms that are nurtured by the spawned-out carcasses of his parents. As he grows, loose eggs and smaller fish being spawned by the several salmon and steelhead runs that share these waters are on the menu. At roughly 20 months of age, this coho will join his thousands of brothers and sisters in a timeless journey down the river and out into the saltwater.
Once out in the salt, Wild Alaskan Coho Salmon range far and wide through the waters of the North Pacific. Feeding throughout the water column over the next year, they focus on prey that provides the greatest nutritional bang for the buck. One of the more interesting staples of a Wild Alaskan Coho from Southeast Alaska is the Magister Armhook Squid. Found in vast numbers in deep water in the North Pacific, the health of this particular squid population has been definitively linked to the average size of the coho returning to Southeast Alaska.
Feeding in the ocean for a year, the coho starts his way back to Southeast in the spring of his third year of life. Following a tell-tale scent of his natal stream, the summer months find him and literally millions of his cohort feeding on the rich herring stocks near the shores of the Tongass temperate rainforest. Here the coho will feed voraciously, and in the month of August will put on a pound a week of body weight. This is a very impressive growth rate for a fish that arrived from the deep ocean in June at 1-2 pounds, and will be heading up the streams in late September at upwards of 10 pounds. It is this aggressive feeding that makes the Wild Alaskan Coho such a great match for our artisanal troll fleet based out of Sitka.
While the coho are feeding in the ocean just offshore of their final destination, trollers like myself are working tirelessly to harvest a small percentage of the run. Over the summer, we will spend roughly 60-80 days straight in pursuit of these fish, pausing only to offload to our favorite fish processor (Catch Sitka, of course!) and take on more food, water, fuel and ice. With luck, summer storms won’t push us off the water during this short window of opportunity, and exhaustion might be put off until the fish have passed us by. While we work our repeated 16-18 hour days on the water, we entice the fish to bite our polished or painted spoons that we drag through the water at a precise speed, in a precise spot – knowledge that has been honed and handed down through the generations. When we “run the gear” (meaning hauling in the lines), each fish is dealt with one at a time. It is stunned in the water, landed carefully, humanely dispatched and instantly bled to ensure the highest possible quality product. We strive to keep every shimmering scale in place, and in spite of the ocean trying it’s best to disrupt our process, we clean the fish with the precision of a surgeon who has practiced his craft several thousand times in the last month. A troller takes great pride in the condition of the fish we offload, and we know the quality is unmatched world-wide.
As a troller, my future is directly tied to the Wild Alaskan Coho and the pristine Tongass National Forest in which they are spawned. The abundance of this fish is tremendous, so one can enjoy a meal of it guilt-free. As long as we collectively care for our environment with a sustainable mindset, we ensure the future of the Wild Alaskan Coho. And by choosing to source your fish from ethical and sustainable partners of mine like Catch Sitka Seafoods, you will ensure the future of our unique small-boat family fleet on the shores of the Tongass National Forest here in Southeast Alaska.
Written by: Hans Olsen F/V Alaska Bounty