Know your fish: The Sockeye Lifecycle

Know your fish: The Sockeye Lifecycle

The 2019 fishing season was the sixth largest run of all time (Bristol Bay Fishing Report, 2019). The preseason forecast called for a run of 40.2 million sockeye with an actual return of 56.3 million, that is 33% higher than predicted, can you envision what an additional 16 million salmon look like? With such impressive numbers on a large scale, it is easy to overlook the equally impressive life cycle that each individual sockeye has in common.

The name Sockeye comes from a rough translation of the name Suk-Kegh, originating from the Pacific Northwest’s native coast Salish language dating back as far as 6,000 years ago, meaning “red fish.” Sockeye are also known as “blueback salmon” because during their time spent in the ocean they sport a metallic green-blue back which contrasts against their white bellies. And, of course, they are prized for their succulent, bright orange meat. As sockeye return to their spawning grounds, they go through an incredible transformation resulting in a vivid red bodies with bright green heads, hence the name “red salmon.” Males develop a humped back and hooked jaw that differentiates them from the females. This is the final stage in their life cycle.

Now, let’s take a look at the journey that got us here:

  • Sockeye return to spawn in June and July into freshwater river systems and lakes. 
  • Females dig small cavities in the sand and gravel called “redds” with their tails over several days, into which they deposit 2,000-5,000 eggs. Males then swim over these eggs and fertilize them. Both males and females die within a few weeks of spawning.
  •  The eggs hatch in the winter and the “alevins” remain in the gravel, feeding from their yolk sacks until they grow into “fry” and move into rearing areas. Fry will spend one to three years feeding on zooplankton in freshwater lakes. If there are no lakes, the juveniles will travel to the ocean immediately after coming out of the gravel
  • By now the young fish have grown into “smolts,” each weighing a few ounces; they are ready to make their springtime journey into the ocean. 
  • As soon as the fish enter salt water, they begin to experience rapid growth. Sockeye will spend up to five years in the ocean, travelling thousands of miles swimming in the counterclockwise current of the Gulf of Alaska. An adult sockeye can range between 18 and 31 inches and a weight of 4 to 15 pounds.

As mature salmon begin to return to their river systems in June and July, they are ready to be harvested. Tribal and First Nation groups depend on salmon returns not only for subsistence, but many ceremonial aspects of their lives as well. The Alaskan fishing industry also depends on strong salmon runs which can be seen in the thousands of jobs and millions of dollars contributed to the economies of both Canada and the United States. The looming Pebble mine is a direct threat to indigenous people and all Bristol Bay fisheries by potentially having a catastrophic effect on salmon populations, which would directly impact the lives of thousands of people.

Making their way upstream is the final step after their arduous journey, and as the sockeye lay their eggs, another life cycle begins. The mature sockeye die and their bodies provide nutrients that feed the developing salmon, insects, and aquatic plant life. An entire ecosystem, including bears and eagles are supported by spawning salmon…how can we not protect them?

Living aboard in Bristol Bay- An insider’s view

Have you ever wondered what it is like to be a commercial fisherman in Bristol Bay, or thought you might like to actually sign on as a deckhand? While it certainly is not the experience for everybody, for the fishermen who spend their summers on the water, there is a satisfaction you would be hard-pressed to find anywhere else after a long and strenuous season.

Vessels are 32’ feet long, about the same length as two cars parked in line. A little over half of that distance is working deck space which leaves very little space for living quarters. With an average crew of 4 people, space is extremely tight and there is just enough room for 4 bunks and a small galley. Remember though, you are in Bristol Bay to fish, not sleep. Days are long and there is no set schedule-sometimes you begin to fish at 4:00 pm; other times the fish call at 4:00 am. It is this lack of predictability that can be both exhilarating and exhausting for a crew. There isn’t time to worry about much more than eating and basic personal hygiene, especially during peak season. Baby wipes become a primary form of bathing and when you do find downtime to take a shower after a week or more of hard work, it can feel like a life changing experience. It is safe to say you really get to know your crewmembers after 6 weeks of living within arms reach of each other. 

Working on deck is an intense experience. Your hands are blistered and raw – your eyes crusty from the 45-minute nap snuck in while there is a lull in intensity. But, when the majority of fish are making their way from the ocean, and the captain is barking orders from the flybridge, you get a surge of energy because you know NOW is the time to catch as many fish as possible. Rain may be blowing sideways in brisk heavy wind and rough seas easily toss the boat around, but you slip on a dry pair of socks, put on your rain gear, and get to work. 

Occasionally though, the rough seas calm down and the clouds open up to expose some sunshine. Feeling the warmth of the sun on your skin after standing in the rain for weeks, or fishing under a vivid sunset of pink and orange at 1:00 am brings a smile of joy to your face. Adding a fresh brewed cup of coffee makes the feeling that much better, it is the fuel that keeps you going through those long and exhausting days.

You feel the most satisfaction when the season comes to an end and you reflect on what it took to catch 250k+ lbs of sockeye. There are many moments while on the water that a feeling of uncertainty lingers. Will the fish show up? Many fishermen depend on this income to get them through the rest of the year, so things that threaten the return of sockeye, such as Pebble Mine, truly do feel daunting. We are betting on mother nature after all, right?  

It is the many facets of Bristol Bay, difficult and thrilling, that keep us coming back. Fishing is in our blood and we are proud to be the fisherman bringing wild caught salmon from our nets to your table. Thank you for your continued support of what we do!

Cheers,

The folks at Pride of Bristol Bay

Boat life

A Day in Bristol Bay

Boat mornings are not too different from a morning in central Pennsylvania or Jackson Hole. There’s the slow rise of the sun, the hot coffee, greetings from nearby friends or family. But, on the boat in the middle of Bristol Bay, there’s something else…a little something else that makes the summer feel special. 

On Bristol Bay mornings, there’s engine room checks, tide-table readings, radio listening then there’s the coffee and oatmeal. Very quickly afterwards, the stillness of morning is replaced by hydraulic motors, lapping tides, chatting crew, radio talk and the swishy sound of salmon landing in the boat’s refrigerated seawater bins.

Somewhere between that quiet time and the action of a fishing set, there comes an indescribable moment. It’s not far from that feeling of waking up disoriented, in a place you don’t recognize. In that moment, the understanding that you are one of the lucky few who gets to call this work, or July, or livelihood appears. It’s the space in the day when you realize you are witness to the astonishing phenomenon of one of the world’s last wild food sources, one that is becoming more and more unique. 

This is why when we spend so much of our year talking about the just six or seven weeks that we spend on the water. There’s just something about it, and we welcome you to be apart of it by enjoying the gift of salmon that this work provides. 

Reserve your share of 2019 salmon today: prideofbristolbay.com.

Thank you

Thank You from the Pride of Bristol Bay Crew

We want to extend a wholehearted thank you to everyone who has purchased wild-caught sockeye salmon through Pride of Bristol Bay this season. It was quite a year, and your support means the world to us. It wouldn’t have been a success without you!

We’re getting ready to head up to Alaska (spoiler alert: we can’t wait to get fishing), because, believe it or not, the 2019 season is almost upon us! The run is expected to be great this year – possibly not quite as large as last year – but we will certainly be returning with more than enough to share.

If you have a freezer full of salmon and are in need of recipes, head over to our blog. We have some great recipes, as well as articles full of tips, tricks, and updates from the crew here at Pride of Bristol Bay. Additionally, head on over to prideofbristolbay.com and hover over “The Daily Catch” to read the articles of interest. Lastly, if you live in one of the buying club locations, pre-orders are open. Click here for more information on dates and locations.

Once more, we would like to extend a warm THANK YOU to everyone who continues to support Bristol Bay and the fight against Pebble Mine [http://www.savebristolbay.org/]. We hope to see you this fall!

Bristol Bay Alaska

Wheels Up: Bristol Bay Bound

Captain Steve spent last week in Naknek, Alaska, the F/V Ava Jane’s winter home. This time of year, the boatyard is crawling out of its winter hibernation. In a month, it will be bustling with activity, especially at high tide, as boat after boat gets launched into the bay in order to start fishing.

Steve wanted to get a head start on a few boat projects, so he headed up early, to prepare on a quiet boatyard, where he can get some work done, instead of visiting with the whole fleet at the cannery Mug-Up. To get a taste of the tundra landscape at the coastal Bristol Bay boatyard days, check out this video that Filson made in the Dillingham boatyard last year.  

As of recently, the overall state forecast for wild Alaska salmon is exceptional: experts predict a catch of 213.2 million fish statewide. In Bristol Bay, the 2018 season broke records – the sockeye salmon harvest was 10% above predictions and the largest seen on record. Last year will be a tough year to beat. However, experts are still predicting historically large returns following a banner year, and a 2019 forecast of 40.18 million sockeye returning to Bristol Bay. This is still 16% above the average run (1963-2018). Most importantly, the Alaska Department of Fish & Game predictions expect “all [Bristol Bay river systems] to meet their spawning escapement goals,” meaning that the health of the overall run and ecosystem is looking sustainably strong. We are thrilled.

No matter the forecast, the pre-season work remains the same. The boatyard is waking up, and the salmon are heading back to their original spawning grounds. The Pride of Bristol Bay team is getting ready to fish!

May 2019 Pebble Mine Update

This week we are celebrating a small victory in the fight against Pebble Mine! Thanks to the efforts of many individuals, the public comment period has been extended an extra 30 days!

At Pride of Bristol Bay, we believe it is essential to celebrate the small victories within this fight of our lives to protect Bristol Bay. The whole Bristol Bay community– you included!– now has until June 29th to collect as many signatures as we can to tell the Army Corps of Engineers that their Draft EIS statement is insufficient and send a strong signal that we believe in the environmental sustainability of Bristol Bay. You can do that right now, click here!

Significantly, this is also encouraging news coming from the Alaska Senatorial offices of Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, who have both been previously wishy-washy on the Pebble Mine issue. It is hopeful that both have spoken out with this concern, and we will continue to pressure them to listen to the majority of their constituents during the next year or more of this process.

That being said, Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay (CFBB) are demanding more and calling this skinny 30-day extension a “slap in the face.” CFBB Representative and Dillingham resident Holly Wysocki shared the following in the Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay press release.

“An extra 30 days does nothing to change the fact that Pebble’s federal permitting process is fundamentally flawed, including a Draft EIS with unacceptable information gaps. There is not enough real substance in the Draft EIS to warrant this process moving forward any further, which is why Bristol Bay’s commercial fishermen continue to request that the Army Corps suspend this process until our questions and concerns are addressed,” said Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay representative and local resident Holly Wysocki. “We risk our lives fishing each summer in Bristol Bay; the least we deserve is a fair and rigorous permitting process.”

Learn more about Holly and her family in this video. We look forward to sharing more fishermen’s stories with you this spring and summer. Submit your comment today! Additionally, we have extended the sale of our Wildly Devoted Dinner Box. Order one today and join us in being Wildly Devoted. We threw a dinner party and had a great time – time to plan that June BBQ to bring friends and family together around this important issue. Eat well and bring meaning to your meal.