NOSB paper

This paper was written as part of the 2002 Alaska Ocean Sciences Bowl high school competition. The conclusions in this report are solely those of the student authors.

Relieving Anadromous Pressures: A Dissertation of Steelhead Trout in the Anchor River Vicinity


Jan Tomsen
Andrew Mew
Steven Wilson
Molly Moran
Caroline Schultz


Team Chugiak
Chugiak High School
PO Box 770218
Eagle River, AK 99577

Chugiak team photo


"The sky opened and the blessed sun shone out over the beautiful waters…"

—John Muir


The goal of this paper is to relate the current state of steelhead in the vicinity of the Anchor River and how we as human beings can improve their natural status in the Alaskan environment. Based on the findings of this team's study, it has been concluded that the most efficient means of Anchor River steelhead protection are as follows:

  • Stream bank restoration
  • Revision of steelhead harvest limits in the Anchor River drainage
  • Issuing of Steelhead Harvest Stamps
  • Conducting Angler Etiquette Courses, including steelhead and related fisheries

Anchor River is located in the southwest portion of the Alaskan Kenai peninsula. It flows southwest into Cook Inlet and parallels the Sterling Highway for a short time. The river also flows through the community of Anchor Point, located about sixteen miles west of Homer, Alaska. The river supports the largest steelhead trout population on the Kenai Peninsula, and the largest in southcentral Alaska (excluding Kodiak Island).

The Anchor River has become a point of concern in relation to its steelhead population due to increased quantities of anglers whose target species include steelhead. Also, the streamside environment is under increased pressure from a heightened human interaction in the Anchor River drainage. Increased harvests by international commercial fishing may also play a significant role in the pressure applied to the Anchor River steelhead run.

Recently, the Nature Conservancy of Alaska bought thirty-seven acres along the bank of the Anchor River from Sharon Knol of Anchorage for $80,000 in an effort to protect fish and wildlife in the area. Randy Hagenstein, the southern Alaska program director of the Conservatory, said the area is to be turned over to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Community Focus: Anchor River

The small community of Anchor Point lies some 16 miles north of Homer, along the Sterling Highway. While the town has been incorporated for less than 52 years, the town of Anchor Point has a long and interesting history.

Even before the arrival of man, the Anchor Point area was rich in game. Many species of waterfowl inhabit the region, as well as moose, bears, beavers, and other forest mammals. When native Alaskans first arrived in the Cook Inlet region, the Anchor Point area was most likely one of their seasonal gathering and hunting areas. There are many species of fish, which abound in the waters of the Anchor River, which meets the Cook Inlet at Anchor Point. There are natural runs of pink, silver, and king salmon, as well as dolly varden and the largest steelhead run in southcentral Alaska.

The area was first explored by Captain James Cook when he sailed through the region in 1778. Cook originally named the point of land "Laida", however the name was later changed to Anchor Point to commemorate the loss of an anchor in the region. It seems that Captain Cook was caught off-guard by the tides and weather in the Inlet and lost an anchor from one of his two ships - the Resolution and the Discovery.

White settlers moved to Anchor Point at the turn of the century and lived a subsistence lifestyle. A U.S. Post office was erected in 1949 - signaling the official recognition of Anchor Point as a town by the U.S. government.

Today the town of Anchor Point is a quiet little roadside town whose major source of income is derived from commerce and from tourism and fishing related to the nearby Anchor River. The town currently has a year-round resident population of 1,230.

Most people visit the town due to it's proximity to some of the greatest fishing in North America. They come by the hundreds from Anchorage and the Matanuska Valley, as well as from all over the world - in order to fish there. Anchor Point and its surrounding communities have become such popular fishing destinations because they are accessible by road - a rare commodity in this comparatively underdeveloped state.

The town of Anchor Point also includes the most western point on the entire U.S. Highway system.

Steelhead Classification, Anatomy, and Life History

The steelhead trout, also known as Oncorhynchus mykiss, is essentially little more than sea-run rainbow trout. Their life cycle begins when the adult steelhead deposits eggs in a freshwater stream. Upon hatching from the eggs the steelhead are identified as alevin, or sac fry, identified by the small yolk sac attached to their underbelly. Over the following year, the alevin develop into fry, dropping their yolk sac and will hunt for food in streams and lakes throughout the remainder of this year. Steelhead smolt average six inches long. After having spent the previous winter growing in the stream of their birth, the smolt will travel down river and enter the ocean where they will feed for a range of two to five years.

Steelhead are classified in the following manner:

  • Kingdom - Animalia
  • Phylum - Vertebrata
  • Class - Osteichthyes
  • Order - Salmoniforms
  • Family - Salmonidea
  • Genus - Oncorhynchus
  • Species - mykiss

It should be noted that the binomial nomenclature of steelhead was changed in 1988 after the American Fisheries Society supported Robert L. Kendall in the proposed changing of the steelhead's Latin name. It had previously been Salmo gairoheri.

On average, for every one hundred steelhead smolt that enter the ocean, only five to ten will return as fully matured adults. The adult steelhead will spend from two to five years at sea before returning to spawn, however most steelhead will remain in the ocean for three years. Spawning is triggered in the steelhead by temperature and will usually occur at 12 to 9°C, but may occur at 15 to 8°C. When spawning commences the female will dig a pit the size of her body and deposit 100-12,000 eggs, which are held in place by sand and gravel. The eggs, having been deposited, are then covered by the female, who will allow the stream to push sand and gravel from a second pit over the eggs as a means of burying them. Steelhead, unlike salmon, do not die after spawning and will return to the sea after it is complete. The older the steelhead is the more fecundity it becomes. The maximum age of steelhead is nine years, and they have not been known to spawn for five consecutive years. The survival of the buried eggs is dependent upon the velocity of the surrounding groundwater and the water oxygenation level. Steelhead eggs are comparatively more resistant to toxins, such as ammonia, than adult or steelhead fry. The time of hatching is dependent on temperature. In water as warm as 15.5°C, the eggs may hatch in as few as fifteen days, however at lower sub arctic temperatures, such as 3°C, hatching may be postponed for as long as 101 days.

The steelhead differs little in appearance from the rainbow trout, and can be easily identified from salmon of similar size by the complete absence of teeth at the base of the tongue and the presence of eight to twelve rays on the anal fin. Small black spots are present on the back, anterior portions, and lobes of the caudal fin. Adult steelhead usually range from 15-20 pounds, however a 42 pound steelhead was caught in Alaska in 1970. Steelheads in excess of 28 inches are usually repeat spawners. When at sea the steelhead will appear as being bright silver, but the luster of the steelhead's coloration will fade as it enters fresh water, while a distinct horizontal pink band will appear on it's sides. The streamlined shape and silvery sheen of the ocean run steelhead are critical components to its survival in the ocean environment. While at sea, the steelhead will show little or no sexual dimorphism, and their back is almost black while the belly is very white in contrast. An unusual trait of the steelhead is that if it attempts to swim against too rapid of a current, it will use up all of the glycogen in its body, causing lactate to accumulate in the blood. If this occurs the steelhead will die in a matter of minutes.

Population, Range, Habitat, and Diet

Across the state of Alaska there are 331 distinct steelhead populations. These populations are identified by the stream in which the steelhead spawn. Three hundred eighteen of these streams support streams from less than a hundred to two hundred steelhead. Steelhead are considered threatened populations due to the fact that the source of steelhead runs are easily accessed by road and susceptible to habitat destruction. The Anchor River and 11 other statewide streams support populations of approximately one thousand steelhead. The largest run in the state occurs at the Situk River where the peak run was 5409 fish, counted in 1989.

Steelhead exist in Alaska from Unalaska along the southern coast of the state to the southern portion of the panhandle, and continues on down the Pacific coast of North America to as far south as northern California. The steelhead runs in Alaska are most extensive in the southeastern portion in and around Juneau, however large populations are also known to exist in southcentral Alaska, the Kenai peninsula, and Kodiak Island. The range of the steelhead in the northern Pacific conforms to water temperature. While at sea, the northern border or boundary of the region occupied by steelhead is in the range of a 5°C isotherm. The fifteen degree Celsius iceotherm determines the southern limit of the steelhead's pelagic range. The steelhead will migrate in an elliptical pattern, traveling in a northwesterly direction in the winter and spring, and moving southeast in the summer and fall. Throughout the steelhead's stay in the ocean they will range as far east as Japan, although they are very abundant in the Gulf of Alaska. Little exact information is known about the migration patterns of individual steelhead from particular streams.

Alaskan steelhead exist in cold, clear water streams with comparatively high water velocities. They require sand and gravel bottoms for spawning, making this a limiting factor in their range. Wood fibers in the water are often fatal for young and mature steelhead, because the fibers become lodged in the gill structure, causing blockage and damage. Logging in and around steelhead-inhabited streams could be detrimental to the stream's steelhead populations. High silt quantities in the water, often caused by stream bank erosion and other human contributions, do not make for optimal conditions for the steelhead. The presence of silt makes spawning difficult because the streambed will become muddy and not rocky, as is required for steelhead spawning. The presence of silt in the water inhibits the groundwater flow also necessary for the incubation of the eggs. Steelhead require the north Pacific temperatures and food source for their stay in the open ocean (see Figure 1).

While in the smolt and fry stages of the steelhead's development their diet will focus on larger insects, snails, and leeches. As the smolt become larger, they may prey upon adult insects and other sub aquatic invertebrates. Smolt steelhead may also feed on the eggs deposited by salmon. When Steelhead mature and begins their ocean migration, their diet will consist of other smaller fish, small crustaceans, and snails. A major portion of the steelhead diet is occupied by various species of small squid and juvenile octopi that inhabit the northern Pacific region. While in the Anchor River, steelhead compete with dolly varden, silver salmon, and king salmon for food (Peterson, 1998).

Predation and Fishing

While humans are the primary consumers of steelhead, they also have several other natural predators. Predation upon steelhead is greatest while they are still in the alvein or fry stages of their development. At this stage they are most often preyed upon by larger predatory fish such as rainbow trout, dolly varden, and northern pike. As the steelhead matures it may become prey for predatory birds such as eagles, osprey, and other raptors. Steelhead will be preyed upon in the streams and lakes by mammals such as river otters, muskrats, bears, and other weasel like creatures, which inhabit the bank environment.

The annual commercial harvest of steelhead is low based on reported harvests in recent years. Reportedly, anywhere from 900-11,000 steelhead are harvested each year internationally. These numbers, however, are unreliable based on the likely inaccuracy of Korean and Japanese harvest reports. Each year the steelhead caught in North America are shipped to fresh markets throughout the western portions of North America and only a few thousand cans of steelhead are produced. It is really sport fishing which occupies the majority of steelhead demand. Steelhead are considered the premiere North American game fish based on the quality and flavor of the meat. Also, the acrobatic and strong fight that steelhead put up when hooked, make them a favorable sport fish. Steelhead fisherman are often characterized as hearty individuals due to the fact that steelhead seasons and runs often occur in periods of poor weather conditions and in often inaccessible regions. Since steelhead are located in streams along the northern Pacific coast, that is usually the target region for sport fishing. There is little or no known sport fishing for steelhead in the open ocean.

Factors of Steelhead Decline

The Anchor River area runs past the Sterling Highway, making the river easily accessible to fisherman, campers, road construction, and any unauthorized activity that increase the erosion factor. Another factor causing erosion is the changing weather. Having the largest steelhead run in southcentral Alaska, the area is exposed to both lawful and unlawful recreation. All of these combine to cause a decrease in the total steelhead population.

Developments along the Sterling Highway near Anchor River have included gravel pits, RV parks, recreational cabins, and use of off-road vehicles. In order to access the river, fishermen and outdoorsmen have to traverse along the riverbank, leading to wear and tear of vegetation and soil, causing erosion due to the lack of root anchorage along the bank. The consequences of erosion are extremely detrimental to the steelhead population, in addition to upsetting the balance of the streambed ecology.

Through the erosion, an augmentation of both soil and silt will result. If a layer of silt covers the gravel, then eggs laid in the gravel will suffocate due to the lack of water movement through the gravel to provide oxygen. The high silt contents provide inadequate habitats for the nesting of eggs laid by the fish. Gravel and other debris are used to anchor the eggs, and with only silt they are likely to be washed downstream.

The absence of flora sheltering the river in the summer can lead to slight changes in water temperature. Because of the steelhead's biological response to temperature occurs in accordance to their reproductive cycle, increases in river temperature will cause premature spawning (Tytler & Calow, 1985). In addition, an increase in water temperature will cause a heightened metabolism rate (see Figure 2).

Plant life along the river's edge provides a watershed, replenishing the water table of the river in times without rain and stabilizing during heavy rain. Without this watershed, the river is at risk for flash floods or near dryness. These will result in a destruction of habitat and aquifers, in addition to suffocation of the fish. Even without these extremes, a less stable water table is unlikely to flourish.

A lack of vegetation along the river shore leads to a decrease of large woody debris. The steelhead fry spend much time in pools of calm water sheltered by rocks, woody debris, or bank foliage. If these areas are eliminated, the fry expend more energy than normal, which can actually stunt their growth. In addition, the plant life around the river provides a portion of the river's nutrients vital to the river ecology. According to the Watershed Education Project, plant cover benefits the watershed by providing a shelter that reduces the impact of rainwater ( Stems and roots provide a pathway for the water and enter the ground where hallow spaces are opened up for holding water and drainage. Organic litter shields the surface of the soil, slowing down runoff and allowing permeability. In addition, vegetation stabilizes the riverbanks.

A lack of large woody debris also results in an increased water velocity. Without stable riverbanks, the river often straightens, as Anchor River is doing. This means that the water has few barriers in which to flow through, and thus the water flowing through any square meter along the river will increase. An increased water velocity will also result in the scouring of the riverbed, either removing the gravel vital for steelhead eggs' incubation or causing the gravel to move and grind the eggs. This leads to a decrease in suspended organic and mineral material that provide the nutrients for the river, which both the steelhead and their food supply depend on. The aquatic insects (the food supply) also provide fertilizer for the river.

This lack of debris is amplified due to the growth and decomposition rates of coniferous and deciduous trees. Coniferous trees will grow back much slower than deciduous trees, such as alders, willows, or cottonwoods, in an area that has been logged or stripped of trees. Hence, river ecology will have deciduous trees for large woody debris for a while before there is a possibility of having coniferous debris. This is a problem because coniferous trees decompose at a rate of 100 years to six of deciduous trees. Thus Anchor River's lack of strong coniferous flora results in the deterioration of the stream banks and eventual collapse of silt and other superfluous debris into the river.

Plan for Stream Bank Restoration and Steelhead Population Stabilization

According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game reports, seven out of nine factors responsible for changes in steelhead population are due to the results of stream bank erosion ( A short-term plan to stabilize the Anchor River banks includes supplementing natural foliage and vegetation previously holding the banks with dead conifers and other sturdy natural flora. The proposal includes working with Department of Fish and Game, who will soon be in possession of the area recently acquired by the Nature Conservancy, to explore a long range goal of readjusting fishing license qualifications in southcentral Alaska and conducting fishing certification courses. This helps insure the honesty of steelhead capture.

In order to reinstate the natural conditions of the riverbanks, harvested conifers will be used for a short time. First the banks must be stabilized; a cable along the sides of the banks will string old Christmas trees after drilling a hole horizontally through the base of the trunk. The trees' tips will be submerged in the water while resting on the sloping bank as the cable is secured in steel posts further from the bank (See Diagram 1). This method will provide the "vegetation" for along the banks. Through this, soil will be stabilized and the tree's submerged branches will reduce water velocity. With the soil stabilization, the quantity of silt input into the river will be decreased. Organic forest material will be slowed down with the decreased water velocity, providing the aquatic insects opportunities for feeding. Seed material will be trapped by the branches and stimulate bank vegetative growth. This will subsequently provide for the river's sunlight coverage. Due to the lessened water velocity, riverbed gouging will greatly diminish, helping to provide for a safe place of incubation, with the combination of simple water speed as well as the remains of large woody debris and rocks in a location. This presence of large bodies in the water provide for the calm pool critical to juvenile life.

Under current state regulations for steelhead harvest limits, the Anchor River area is classified as a catch and release area only. However, the Anchor River is open to salmon fishing, and steelhead are often mistaken for small silver salmon. This often results in accidental illegal harvests of steelhead, but several instances of poaching have also occurred. The catch and release methods also do not insure that all fish released will survive, as a hook that is swallowed or improperly removed can result in the fatality of the trout. It is therefore essential to educate fishermen and campers about the importance of fishing etiquette and the legal limits of harvest at the time.

A proposal for long term health of the Anchor River steelhead includes the availability of a course by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game which teaches, among other safety and proper fishing technique, the current regulations, bag limits, identification between species, proper barb removal, catch and release techniques, and other stream etiquette to reduce needless waste of fish. To provide incentives for the course, a waiver for the fee of a fishing license will be given to those who have taken the class. The license currently costs fifteen dollars. It is proposed to have the course cost five dollars, and the cost of a card with the course to be an additional five. It is important to teach proper etiquette in order to help the stability of the steelhead population and to allow the future conservation of Alaska's natural land and resources. A separate steelhead stamp, similar to the current king stamp, must be purchased in order to catch the elusive trout. Very few current resources provide information on proper steelhead fishing etiquette. Limeres, Pedersen (1997) was the only reference found to address "Ethics for Alaskan Steelheaders", including preserving wild steelhead, getting involved, and not using bait. Sufficient information for the proper care of steelhead fishing is thus greatly in demand.

The funding for stream bank restoration will be helped in part by the Department of Fish and Game, as well as possible portions from Trout Unlimited. The conifers can be donated from old Christmas trees, taken in late December/early January, and placed in the soil in late May. The courses will self funded by the profits incurred by the classes, and perhaps, if additionally needed, subsidized by the state.

The Anchor River area is a valuable recreation and sport fishing area. It has the dominant run of steelhead in the area, and thus it is important to protect the watershed and it's surrounding area. Alaska's trout and other freshwater fishes are important to the ecology of healthy streams and estuaries. The food chain, connecting insects, fish, small and large mammals, is both a precious and a delicate one. Let us work to protect the areas that harbor our resources of fish and wildlife species, particularly those under pressure, and to have a better respect and enjoyment of the places around us.


Figure 1.

Fig. 1, steelhead availability

Figure 2.

Fig. 2, steelhead metabolic rate

Diagram 1.

Diagram 1, bank restoration

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