This weekend is the 24th annual Tanana Valley Sandhill Crane Festival. Events will be held Friday through Sunday at the Creamers Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge. There will be guided hikes, talks with biologists, birding activity and more out at Creamers. Of course, the trails are well worth hitting without the guides.
Sandhill Cranes usually start staging in early August for their migration south. An average autumn will see 150,000 to 200,000 cranes fly through the Tanana Valley.
Kotzebue, which is on Alaska’s northwest coast, had a rare visitor over the past weekend. Word quickly traveled through town that a polar bear had wandered into the area.
It is not unheard of for Kotz to see a polar bear. In fact the world’s largest documented polar bear was found in Kotzebue in the 1960’s. That bear weighed more than 2200 pounds and stood at 11 feet. Still, it does not happen often that Kotz gets to see the great white bruin.
The bear this weekend, more than likely, was left stranded by no sea ice to escape to. It hung around fish camp, just outside of Kotzebue, for a while. It didn’t take long for onlookers to come out to see the bruin. People were curious, but cautious, by all accounts. Eventually, the bear took off for a swim in Kotzebue Sound, and escaped the gawkers.
The story of the beached orca near Prince of Wales Island in Alaska caught the attention of many of you. The killer whale, now known to be T146D, was found by locals recently, trapped out of water on some rocks.
The locals kept it wet, first by pouring water from buckets on the orca, then by spraying water from a yacht that showed up to help out. Eventually, NOAA fisheries experts came along to keep watch over the stranded orca.
T146D ended up getting some cuts and abrasions from the rocks, but after at least 6 hours of being stranded, the tide came in, and the orca was able to free itself.
T146D is a Biggs Orca, which has a population of approximately 300, and they ply the waters off western North America. T146D is thought to be a female, but that is an educated guess. The killer whale is known to be 13 years old.
There was some speculation early on, that the orca was caught off guard due to the 8.2 earthquake recently off the coast of Alaska. NOAA has disputed that, saying there is absolutely no evidence of the earthquake having anything to do with the stranding. More than likely, the orca was hunting harbor seals and came too close to the rocks. There have been five live-strandings of Biggs Orcas in the past 20 years. All survived the ordeal and rejoined their pod, according to NOAA. The population of Biggs Orcas are known to hunt harbor seals in shallow waters.
I spoke with someone from Dillingham yesterday. The salmon run was winding down, fishermen were leaving town, but he described the salmon season as “fast & furious”.
It must have been exactly that. The one salmon bright spot across the state has been Bristol Bay this summer. The salmon run was an all time record for The Bay with over 63.2 million sockeyes returning. It is the fourth time since 1952 that the return has hit the 60 million mark.
The Nushagak also set a record for escapement, with 9.7 million sockeyes swimming upriver. That district had their second best run with 27.2 million sockeyes.
Much of Alaska is seeing diminished returns of salmon this summer. One bright spot is Bristol Bay, and in particular, the Nushagak River. Bristol Bay is the place to be for salmon, and it is really hot in 2021. The Nushagak saw a record number of sockeyes caught last week, with more than 1,820,000 and 1,770,000 fish landed on consecutive days. That’s seeing a lot of red.
The news that the chum fishing season had closed on the Yukon brought me a question from the balcony. “What’s a chum?”
Chum Salmon, also known as the Dog Salmon. The least commercially sought after of our Pacific Salmon. Alaska chum mature at 5 years. An adult chum can weigh between 9 – 22 pounds, with an average length of 24″. The record chum salmon weighed in at 42 pounds.
Pink Salmon, also known as Humpies. One look at a pink in its spawning phase will make it clear how the other name stuck. The back of a pink will grow a large hump, making them the Quasimodo of the salmon world. Humpies are the smallest of our five species, averaging just under 5 pounds as an adult. A usual year sees a harvest of 107 million pounds of pinks in Alaska waters. The record pink weighed 15 pounds. I admit to being a salmon snob, and refuse to keep pinks. Visitors can keep them, but my rule is that they have to take the humpy with them when they leave. Luckily, I can be a bit selective on what goes into my freezer.
Coho Salmon, also known as Silvers. The coho is probably known more as a game fish than a prize for the commercial fisheries. They amount to only 3.5% of the Alaska catch my numbers, just under 6% by weight. They are fun to catch though, and make up the majority of my cache in most years. On average, the returning salmon weigh 7-11 pounds, with some reaching up to 36 pounds, but that is a big silver. The spawning coho will develop a large kype, or hooked beak.
Sockeye Salmon, or Reds. The salmon that makes Alaska, the sockeye has a lifespan of 3-7 years, and can weigh 6-16 pounds as an adult. Bristol Bay alone, which is home to the largest (and last) great sockeye fishery, brings in an annual catch of some 30 million sockeye salmon. Statewide, sockeyes are the third most abundant species of salmon.
Saving the biggest for last: The Chinook or King Salmon. An adult king averages 30 pounds and 36″ in length, with the Alaska record being 126 pounds and 58″ in length. The Chinook is the official state fish, and the one everyone wants to catch. Images of the massive Chinook caught out of the Kenai River are all over the internet. Unfortunately, this is the species of Pacific Salmon that seems to have taken the biggest hit, population wise. It is a rare year when a King can be kept from the Yukon River these days, and even the Kenai Peninsula is seeing seasons shortened, if not called off altogether.
People talk of keystone species, and the salmon is the keystone for an entire state. The amount of biomass that enters the ecosystem every year with the death of the spawning salmon is simply staggering. Commercial fisheries, subsistence users, sport fishing, lodges, guides, all rely on the salmon.
The Tongass is known as America’s Salmon Forest, with roughly 17,000 miles of salmon streams and rivers. The nutrients that enter the forest every year from the salmon, drive the forest. Every year, salmon offer a smorgasbord to bears, wolves, eagles and the like, throughout the state.
Nothing is more important to Alaska than its salmon.
We already knew that the King Salmon run for the Yukon River was going to be dismal, but now word is coming out that the chum run looks to be equally bleak. This is a real blow to subsistence users throughout the Yukon basin and all its tributaries.
At the end of June, only 31,000 chum salmon had passed the Pilot Station sonar. The historic average for that date is 500,000 chum salmon. The count is the lowest on record.
Not surprisingly, the Chinook and chum salmon fisheries have been closed throughout the Yukon River system due to the low returns.
As the bears of Katmai return to the river, so does the Bear Cam at Brooks Falls. The cam went online Monday, so feel free to head over to Explore.org to see how Otis, Holly and 747 fared over the winter.