Alaska Cruises and the Salmon Forest

Salmon are an important part of the history, culture, ecology, and economy of Southeast Alaska. Indeed, the Temperate Rainforest of the Pacific Northwest that we explore on our Alaska cruise can be called "The Salmon Forest."

All salmon species are anadramous; that is, they begin life in freshwater, go to sea to feed and grow, and then return to the freshwater environment to spawn and create the next generation. Atlantic salmon (there is a single species on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean) can spawn, and then return to the ocean to recover from the ordeal of breeding, and come back into freshwater to spawn again in subsequent years. Pacific salmon, on the other hand, spawn only once and then they die. It may seem a bit futile, but they withhold nothing from reproduction. They even digest their own body for resources that maximize their one chance at reproduction.

There are five species of Pacific salmon (each with two common names): king or chinook; silver or coho; red or sockeye; pink or humpback (commonly called humpy); and chum or dog salmon. The smallest of the salmon, pinks, are the most abundant breeders in coastal Alaska, followed by reds, which spawn in lakes rather than streams. Spawning is mostly seen from late July through August, and it is among the most exciting sight of our Alaska tours as bears and eagles gather by the streams to eat their fill.

Salmon that return, spawn, and die bring nutrients from the sea. Many carcasses are carried into the forest by predators. Other fish simply die and decompose in the stream to feed fly larvae and other decomposers. In fact, salmon carcasses, via fly larvae, feed the early growth of the next generation of salmon. Marine nutrients make their way into the soil and are taken up by plants for use in their productivity. The largest trees and most productive forests are found along salmon spawning streams, and their chemistry reveals the presence of marine nutrients.

The rich material culture and complex societies of Northwest Coast Indians like the Tlingit of Alaska developed, in part, because of the abundance and seasonality of salmon returning to freshwater to spawn. The abundant resource allowed the development of a structured society, with ruling and worker classes. Seasonality gave the people time to invest in their distinctive art. 

Fishing for salmon has been an important part of the Alaskan economy since the late 1800s. In earlier years, canned salmon dominated the industry. Now, fresh and flash-frozen fish are shipped all around the world, and the "Wild-caught Alaskan Salmon" label attests to the high quality of the product. Salmon farming is not allowed in Alaskan waters, as it produces an inferior fish and causes environmental damage. Alaskans are justifiably proud of the job that is done in managing the salmon fishery to assure the future of this great fish.

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