Last meal for returning sockeye a documented, if uncommon, phenomenon

Jul 13, 2018


Thursday was a slightly better day for sockeye returns to the Kenai river. But some of those fish coming back have raised a little curiosity.

Reports from commercial fishermen about netted sockeye coming in with bellies full of small forage fish have been confirmed by Fish and Game. Cook Inlet management coordinator Pat Shields says while perhaps unexpected, finding returning salmon with full stomachs isn’t totally uncommon, either.

“For the most part, the salmon do quit eating a few days or even a few weeks prior to entering the freshwater stream. But this year, for example, over at the Cooper River, they noted there were sockeye salmon that had their stomachs gorged with eulachon, or hooligan, so we do see that in other systems.”

Shields chalks it up to opportunistic feeding. On the trip back to spawn, the salmon may pass through schools of these smaller feeder species, and grab that one last snack before the home stretch. He says there have been studies done on feeding habits of salmon that are about to spawn.

“Some researchers have looked at salmon that are in the freshwater, being very territorial and aggressive getting ready to spawn, if they consume eggs, for example, does that provide them any advantage in their migratory runs upriver. Sometimes they go thousands of miles. Researchers have looked at that and tried to figure out if fish that show that type of behavior (get) any type of advantage and it’s not clear cut if it does.”

So it’s not totally uncommon, but it’s not exactly a trend, either. What has been a trend, at least on the Kenai river, is the sockeye return coming in a little later than what has come to be expected. Shields says one good day for counts could bring projections back to where they’d like to see them, and he says there’s still time for escapement goals to be met for late run Kenai kings.

“We’re not that far off Kenai kings, late run, are still projecting at this point that we will achieve that goal. And Kenai sockeye, it’s very early in that run. It’s so early that one good day of counting will put us right back where we need to be in that river. So, while I said we’ll be watching it closely, we’re not at a level where we can’t recover. We’re very early in those runs.”

Thursday saw a noticeable uptick in the Kenai sockeye count, with almost 15,000 fishing passing through for a season total of 66,000. Another 300 kings were counted Thursday, bringing that run to a total of about 2,400.