Chinook salmon, also called spring salmon, is the largest Pacific Salmon species. Spawning occurs in large rivers from California to Alaska, but with the Fraser River and the Yukon River, both in BC, being the most important. Due to their large size, rich flavour, and omega-3 fatty acids, spring salmon is one of the highest valued fish amongst the foodie community.
Chinook usually spend three to four years in the ocean before returning to their home rivers to spawn. Salmon undergo significant morphological changes prior to the spawning event, by losing the silvery blue they had while being in the ocean.
Chinook spawn in larger and deeper waters than other salmon species, being found usually on the spawning redds (nests) from September to December. Egg deposits are timed so the young salmon fry emerge during an appropriate season to help growth and survival. Young chinook stay in fresh water 12 to 18 months before they migrate to estuaries. Female salmon lay their eggs in four to five nesting pockets within a redd, and then guard it from 4 to 25 days before dying. During this time, males seek additional mates. After 90 to 150 days, eggs hatch depending upon water temperature.
An adult spring salmon can range in size from 24 to 36 in, and weigh an average of 10 to 50 lb.
Chinook salmon are sexually dimorphic, which means both genders have differences beyond just their sexual organs. Males develop canine-like teeth and their jaws are curved. Spring salmon are also piscivorous, which means they eat other fish.
Additionally, chinook are also one of the favoured prey of killer whales due to their large size and presence in coastal waters.
-Cool Fact: The commercial catch world record, 126 lb, was caught near River Inlet, British Columbia, in the late 1970’s.
Spring Salmon in BC
Summer is the best time to fish spring salmon as salmon flood into our area on their way to the Fraser River or the Columbia River. As July progresses, there are more chinook salmon destined to the Fraser River that show up until late August. Back in the days, chinook was mostly targeted by commercial fishers. The catch of chinook salmon in BC started increasing from the late 19th century through the early 20th century. Chinook then started increasing again through the late 1970s exceeding two million fish in one year. After salmon became an even more popular target for fishermen in BC, different salmon protection treaties took effect and dealt with the management and rebuilding of pacific chinook stocks by reducing limits on the harvest of such. As a result, estimates of annual spawning escapement of chinook have increased from 150,000 to 500,000, which triggered an increase in total chinook abundance in BC.
BC Commercial Fishing
The different methods spring salmon are commercially fished in BC are:
- Trolling: Use hooks and lines to catch various salmon. The lines are spread out on long poles that extend over the side of the boats. In order to target only chinook, you should consider the type of lure and the way the are arranged, boat speed, use of electronic systems, water depth and fishermen's experience. Caught fish are reeled in one-by-one, and iced or quick frozen. Trollers harvest all five species of wild BC salmon and account for almost 25% of the total commercial harvest.
- Seining: Use of large nest to encircle the fist before closing the net and then scooping the fish out with a smaller dip net. By-catch can be released unharmed. Seiners account for about 50% if the total commercial harvest.
- Gillnetting: Gillnets are attach to small boats. In this method, the salmon swim towards the nets and are then trapped by their grills. The nets are set to close to the shore and hauled frequently to collect the salmon. Fishermen can selectively harvest any size of spring salmon by the way the suspend the nets and the mesh size. Gillnetters account for about 25% of the total commercial harvest.
Salmon strongly depend on other salmon to survive. Their reproduction strongly dictates their future in the wild, as they need strict conditions to successfully pass on their genes. Some salmon populations are endangered, and precautions are being taken in BC to prevent overfishing and habitat destruction, like safe management of hydroelectric, irrigation projects, and quota management systems. Despite these efforts, the wild catch of BC salmon has decreased about 80% since 1990 according to the Ministry of Agriculture, causing salmon prices to rise. Nowadays, aquaculture has replaced most of the decline, and produces about three quarters of B.C.'s total salmon stock.
“We are seeing prices beyond what I ever expected it to reach,” said Guy Dean, vice-president of Albion Fisheries.
In order to prevent further damage to the salmon fishery, the DFO is nearly investing $65 million, of which $20 million are directly related to Fraser River sockeye. This annual investment supports a wide range of activities including, fisheries science, protection of fisheries habitat, salmon enhancement, catch monitoring, and enforcement.
Additionally, in order to restore BC salmon's stock the Government of Canada has committed to enhancing, conserving and rebuilding wild salmon in British Columbia. That is why it is investing $34.2 million to upgrade and modernize hatcheries and spawning channels. Some of the measures introduced are:
- a moratorium on aquaculture development in Discovery Islands,
- the investment of $25 million into fisheries habitat conservation projects
Chinook salmon is prized among many Native North American tribes. The first chinook caught each year is celebrated with "first-salmon ceremonies." Additionally, spring salmon fishing is still important economically for many native communities, sometimes more than any other species.
Chinook as Orca Whale food Source
There are only about 78 orcas remaining in the J, K, and L-pods that travel throughout the West Coast and they are struggling to survive, despite reproductive efforts. 98% of orcas’ summer diet is chinook salmon, which is also a struggling species along the West Coast. Recently, a group of fishermen released a group of 220,000 young chinook to the ocean to help the orcas survive. This initiative will take around three years, and only about 5,000 chinook are expected to survive to maturity.