All About Salmon

  • This page is dedicated to the majestic and tasty creature called the salmon.

    Here you can learn all about all five species of wild Alaskan salmon including their natural history, how commercial fishermen harvest them, how the state of Alaska manages the fisheries for sustainability and more. If you are here on this website, then you are likely already well aware of why wild salmon are superior to farm-raised salmon from a human health, environmental and moral standpoint. But in case you are not aware of the differences, we have elaborated on them here. Enjoy learning about the lifeblood of Alaska–the wild salmon.

    Amazing Facts About Salmon

    • Salmon Are Great Athletes

    -Migrating salmon are able to jump over waterfalls more than 12′ tall in order to get back to their home stream for spawning.
    -Chum salmon in the Yukon River are long-distance travel champions. Some of these fish will migrate over two thousand miles to their spawning streams.
    -Some salmon travel for two months or more to reach their spawning streams. All this travel takes place without them eating one bite of food!

    • Salmon Are Quick Change Artists

    -The memory and smell centers in a salmon’s brain grow rapidly just before it leaves its home stream for the sea. Scientists believe this memory of their home stream’s unique smell will help salmon find their way back when it’s time to spawn.
    -When a salmon hatches, it is adapted for a life in fresh water. Its whole body goes through many changes during its migration to the sea to make it able to live in salt water.
    -Salmon are all bright silver in the sea. As they return to spawn, their colors may change to brown, bright red, green, or stripes. The spawning males of different species may also develop a hooked nose, humped back, or fierce teeth which help them attract a mate and defend their spawning territory.

    • Salmon Have Amazing Senses

    -A salmon can detect one drop of water from its home stream mixed up in 250 gallons of sea water. Salmon will follow this faint scent trail back to their home stream to spawn.
    -The lateral line along the salmon’s side can detect very small currents in the water. This helps them tell direction, find food, and avoid predators.
    -Some Sockeye salmon are able to navigate using the sun and moon.
    -Salmon have 300 degree vision. They can see in all directions except directly behind them.

    • Salmon Are Important

    -Salmon are found in food chains in freshwater, in estuaries, and in the open ocean. They are an important food source for many animals including humans.

    Five Species of Pacific Salmon

    Alaska is blessed with five species of wild salmon–red or sockeye, king or chinook, silver or coho, dog or chum and the pink or humpy. Each of these species are anadromous, meaning simply that they spend a portion of their lives in both salt and fresh water. In what is one of earth’s greatest migrations, every summer millions upon millions of wild salmon return from their feeding grounds far out to sea to spawn (mate) in the river in which they hatched. Each species arrives at their river at a different time during the summer and while some rivers such as the Yukon are home to all five species of salmon, other rivers are home to only one or two. Salmon find their way home (sometimes even just a tiny creek) using their keen sense of smell (salmon can smell the specific chemical makeup of their river). They simply follow their noses. Some researchers think that some salmon may even use the sun and moon for navigation.  Once they have found their river, they school-up and wait for a critical mass and a high tide to make their move upriver. When the tide floods, the salmon charge upriver sometimes past a gauntlet of bears, eagles and other predators. While some salmon travel only a short way up a river before they spawn (sometimes less than a mile), others travel hundreds or thousands of miles. Additionally, each species has different needs for a spawning ground–some require a lake at the head of their river while others lay their eggs in redds (pebble nest) right on the river bottom itself. In mid-winter to early spring, the tiny “alevin” hatch from the eggs and remain in fresh water as “smolt” for a period of time (up to a few years depending on species and water conditions). The “fry” eventually make their way toward the sea (in mid-summer for Bristol bay red salmon), undergoing many physical changes in the process (they change silvery to match their new ocean environment and their gills and kidneys adapt to the salt water). The fry initially stay close to shore but eventually head out into open water to feed on zooplankton and small fish. Red salmon from Bristol Bay move west along the north side of the Alaska Peninsula through Bering Sea, then turn south through Aleutian passes into the clear, cold North Pacific where they feed and grow.  The following winter, the fish split into two groups: those that will mature and spawn the following year and those that will not. Younger fish head south while maturing fish stay north of 50 degrees north latitude. 1-6 years (depending on the species), the adult salmon return to the river where they hatched to complete the cycle. Once they have laid thieir eggs, they die and provide food and nutrients for plants and animals throughout the state.

    Salmon are often called “the lifeblood of the land” because their bodies provide food for people and much of Alaska’s wildlife alike. Salmon also feed the plants since their decomposing bodies infuse the landscape with nitrogen and other important nutrients.

    Red Salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka)


    General Description
    The sockeye salmon is the only Pacific salmon where the fry rear almost exclusively in lakes. In the ocean stage, sockeyes are greenish blue on the top of the head and back, silvery on the sides and white to silver on the belly. At spawning, the head and caudal fin become bright green and the body turns brilliant scarlet giving the sockeye its other common name, “red salmon”. Sockeyes can reach a length of about 34 inches and a weight of about 15 pounds.

    Taste and Color
    Red salmon did not get their name for no reason. The flesh of these prized salmon get their bright red color naturally from the food they out far out to sea––namely, different varieties of plankton. Red salmon have very firm, bright flesh and are often just the right size for one fillet to feed a family of 3 or 4. Red salmon have a wonderful and distinct taste but with no “fishiness” at all.

    Range And Abundance
    The sockeye salmon ranges from the Klamath River in Oregon to Point Hope in northwestern Alaska. On the Asian side of the Pacific Ocean, sockeyes are also found from the Anadyr River in Siberia south to Hokkaido, Japan. The largest sockeye population is in the Kvichak, Naknek, Ugashik, Egegik, and Nushagak Rivers that flow into Alaska’s Bristol Bay. In good years, these runs have tens of millions of fish.

    Life History
    Adult sockeyes return to spawn between July and October. Spawning occurs most commonly in streams that connect to lakes. The female deposits between 2,500 to 4,300 eggs in 3 to 5 redds that are fertilized by the male. Hatching occurs from mid-winter to early spring, and fry emerge from the gravel between April and June. Most of the fry swim to a lake and reside there for one to two – or rarely three or four years before going to sea. Smolts initially stay close to the shore and feed on insects and plankton. Once they move offshore, their diet turns mainly to amphipods, copepods, squid, and some fish. Most sockeyes stay at sea for two years, returning to spawn in their fourth year, but some may be five or six.

    Economic Importance
    Sockeye salmon are the most economically important salmon in Alaska. More pink and chum salmon are caught, but sockeyes are a higher quality fish and sell for a much higher price. There is also a sockeye sport fishery.

    Cultural Importance
    Sockeyes are an important fish for Alaska Natives who are commercial and subsistence fishermen. Most fish are caught using gill nets and beach seines.

    King Salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha)


    General Description
    The Chinook salmon is Alaska’s state fish. It is also the largest of the Pacific salmon. The largest Chinook salmon ever documented, a 126 lb fish, was caught in a fish trap near Petersburg, Alaska in 1949. A 97 lb Chinook was caught on sport tackle near Admiralty Island in south east Alaska.

    Other common names for this fish are king or red salmon. In the ocean, Chinook have blueish-green backs and silver sides, with irregular black spotting on the back, dorsal fin and both lobes of the tail. Spawning fish in interior Alaska rivers are bright red and males develop a hooked snout.

    Taste and Color
    King salmon are widely prized for their pale orange and incredibly flavorful flesh. Because king salmon can grow so large, fillets are usually cut into smaller, but usually very thick, portions.

    Range And Abundance
    Spawning populations of Chinook salmon are found all the way from the Ventura River in southern California north to Point Hope, Alaska. The Yukon and Nushagak Rivers in Alaska, have the largest runs of Chinook salmon in the world.

    Life History
    Chinook salmon spawn from July to mid-August in the Yukon River drainage. alevin remain in the gravel until the yolk sac has been absorbed, usually about 2-3 weeks after hatching,then they work their way up through the gravel and become free-swimming, feeding.

    Chinook salmon fry stay in fresh water for a year in the Yukon River drainage before migrating to estuaries and tidal creeks. They stay close to shore for several months then gradually move into deeper,saltier water. Alaskan Chinook salmon can stay at sea for 2 to 5 years.

    Economic Importance
    The Chinook salmon’s large size and high-quality flesh makes it one of Alaska’s most valuable commercial fisheries. Yukon River commercial fishermen caught over * 45,000 Chinook salmon in 2006. Chinook salmon are also one of Alaska’s most prized sport fish. Anglers in the Kenai Peninsula alone spend over 40 million dollars annually, much of it in pursuit of Chinook salmon.

    Cultural Importance
    Chinook salmon are probably the most important subsistence fish for native people living along Interior rivers. Over * 56,000 Chinook salmon were harvested among the 40 rural communities along the Yukon River in 1997. Chinook salmon are harvested with gill nets, beach seines and fish wheels and are eaten fresh, smoked, and canned.

    Silver Salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch)


    General Description
    The coho salmon is the second largest of the Pacific salmon. These fish can reach lengths of 35 inches, and weights of up to 36 pounds. The other common name for this fish is silver salmon. In the ocean, coho salmon have dark metallic blue or greenish backs with silver sides and a light belly. There are small black spots on the back and upper lobe of the tail. The gumline in the lower jaw has lighter pigment than that found in the Chinook salmon. Spawning fish in Interior rivers are dark with reddish-maroon coloration on the sides. Males develop a strongly hooked snout and large teeth.

    Taste and Color
    Silver salmon have light flesh and a mild taste. While silvers are eaten widely in Alaska, they are less common outside the state.

    Range And Abundance
    Coho salmon can be found from Monterey Bay in California to Point Hope in the Chukchi Sea. They range east in Interior rivers across the Alaska-Yukon border. They are found west to the Anadyr River in Siberia, and south along the coast of Asia to Japan. Coho salmon populations are less numerous than chum, pink and sockeye salmon, but they are still considered a relatively abundant fish.

    Life History
    Coho salmon enter spawning streams from August through November where they school in pools or lakes for a number of weeks. Spawning takes place from late September through January in shallow tributaries with gravel bottoms. The female digs several gravel nests, called redds, and deposits between 2,400 to 4,500 eggs in them. Fry emerge from the redd in May or June and remain in fresh water from one to four winters before going to sea. Coho salmon smolts tend to stay close to shore at first, feeding on plankton. As they grow larger, they move farther out into the ocean and switch to a diet of small fish. Coho salmon can stay at sea for two to three years.

    Economic Importance
    High quality, troll-caught coho salmon are frequently frozen whole and sold as a delicacy in Europe. Coho salmon are also extremely important as a sport fish in the state. They are pursued by anglers both in marine and freshwater systems, adding millions of dollars annually to the state’s economy.

    Cultural Importance
    Coho salmon are an important subsistence fish for native people living along Alaska’s coast and interior rivers. These fish are harvested with gill nets, beach seines and fish wheels and are eaten fresh, smoked, and canned.

    Dog Salmon (Oncorhynchus keta)


    General Description
    Chum salmon are also sometimes known as dog salmon. They have the widest distribution worldwide of any of the Pacific salmon.

    Ocean stage chum salmon are metallic greenish-blue along the back with black speckles. As chum salmon enter fresh water, their color and appearance changes dramatically. Both sexes develop a “tiger stripe” pattern of bold red and black stripes. Males develop a hooked snout and large teeth.

    Chum salmon typically spawn in coastal rivers. These fish can migrate over two thousand miles to their spawning streams.

    Taste and Color
    Dog or chum salmon have light, soft flesh. Chum are excellent when fresh and make a wonderful smoking or canning salmon. Chum are commonly eaten within Alaska by Native Alaskans and other subsistence fishermen but are rarely seen outside the state.

    Life History
    Chum salmon can return to spawn at between 3 and 6 years of age. Summer chum salmon enter the Yukon on their spawning migrations from late May through mid-July. Fall chum salmon enter the river from late June through early September. Summer chum salmon lay about 2,500 eggs, fall chum salmon lay over 3,300.

    Chum salmon eggs in interior Alaska hatch while rivers and streams are still ice covered. Chum salmon fry begin migration to the sea soon after emerging from the gravel in the spring. Fry stay in river estuaries for several months, then move into the open ocean in the fall and winter of their first year. Most Alaskan chum salmon stay at sea for 2 to 5 years. As they near spawning age, chum salmon start moving toward their home streams.

    Economic Importance
    Until a few years ago, chum salmon were the least commercially important of the Pacific salmon. Since then, a growing market has developed in Japan and Europe for fresh and frozen fish. Over * 92,000 summer chum and 174,000 fall chum salmon were harvested from the Yukon River in 2006.

    Most chum salmon are caught with purse seines and gill nets in the ocean. Fish wheels and gillnets are used to catch fish swimming upriver.

    Cultural Importance
    Chum salmon have always been an important source of food for native people and their dogs in over 200 rural villages in interior Alaska. Along the Yukon River, over * 84,000 summer chum and 58,000 fall salmon were caught by subsistence fishermen in 2003. These fish are caught with gill nets and fish wheels and are smoked, dried, or frozen for winter subsistence use.

    Pink Salmon (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha)


    General Description
    The pink salmon is the smallest and most abundant of the Pacific salmon. It also has the shortest lifespan of all the Pacific salmon, and spends the least amount of time in fresh water. Pink salmon can reach a length of 30 inches and a weight of up to 14 pounds, but a body weight between 2 – 7 pounds is more typical.

    In the ocean, pink salmon have steel blue to blue-green backs,silver sides, and a white belly. Large, oval, black spots cover the back, adipose fin and both lobes of the tail. Spawning fish have dark backs with a pinkish wash and green blotches on their sides. Males develop a strongly hooked snout and sharp teeth, and an enormous hump behind the head. This gives the fish its other common name, “humpback salmon”, or “humpy”.

    Taste and Color
    Pink salmon are not often sold fresh or even frozen in the United States. The flesh is light and soft and good when very fresh.

    Range And Abundance
    The range of the pink salmon extends from La Jolla, California north to the Arctic Ocean, east to the Mackenzie River Delta, and west across Siberia to the Lena River. In the western Pacific Ocean, pink salmon can be found as far south as Korea and Kyushu, Japan.

    Life History
    Pink salmon may spawn anytime from June to late September depending on location and distance from salt water. The female prepares a redd and deposits between 800 – 2,000 eggs that are fertilized by the male. The young hatch out from late December through February. Fry emerge from the gravel in April or early May and almost immediately begin moving downstream to the sea. Adult Alaskan pink salmon range from the Bering Sea, out the Aleutian chain, and as far south as the California coast. Adults spend 18 months in the ocean then return to spawn completing their life cycle in just two years.

    Due to the two year life cycle, the pink salmon runs in odd and even numbered years are genetically separate. These distinct populations can look slightly different and have much different run sizes.

    Economic Importance
    Millions of pounds of pink salmon are caught annually, but the quality of the fish is low, resulting in a low price paid to fishermen. Almost all of the pink salmon caught is canned. There is also a small coastal sport fishery for pink salmon.

    Cultural Importance
    Pink salmon are mainly used as food by Alaska Natives living along the coast. They are caught in gill nets and beach seines and dried or canned.

    Alaska’s Commercial Salmon Fisheries

    The wild salmon returning to Alaskan streams are the basis for one of the state’s most important industries and underpin a traditional subsistence lifestyle in rural portions of the State. From 2000 – 2004, the average harvest of salmon sold by commercial fishermen in Alaska was almost 157 million fish (about 742 million pounds). The average annual value of the 2000 –2004 harvest was in excess of $230 million. Because of the magnitude of commercial fisheries for salmon, state biologists collect extensive information and statistics so that they can make effective management decisions and keep the resource truly a renewable one. Alaska also has very important sport and subsistence fisheries for salmon. Many Alaskans depend heavily on subsistence-caught salmon for food and cultural purposes. Fishery management plans give top priority to the subsistence use of fish resources.

    To learn more about the specific types of commercial fisheries used to catch Alaskan seafood, download this PDF from the Alaska Dep. of Fish & Game.