Salmon are an incredibly important part of the Pacific Northwest. These fish are vital to our ecosystems and in the food chain; in addition, they play a significant role in our economy and have played a big role in indigenous cultures for generations. In Washington state, Alaska, and other places, there are five types of Pacific salmon that are born in streams and rivers before making their way to the Pacific Ocean and the Salish Sea. Chinook/king, coho/silver, chum/dog, pink/humpy and sockeye/red are found throughout the Pacific Northwest.
Born as a fertilized egg in freshwater streams and rivers, salmon will incubate and grow in the egg for a certain amount of time (determined by species and water temperature). During this time, they’re in the safety of gravel in a river or lake, which usually protects them from predators. Eventually, salmon will hatch and start the next stage of their life: the alevin. As alevin, salmon are small and have a large orange sac attached to their body, which contains much-needed nutrients. They still remain in the gravel during this stage.
Once they’ve grown and consumed the orange sac, salmon leave the gravel and are considered fry. By this point, they are still relatively small and what they do next depends on the species. Coho fry can spend more than a year in the stream where they were born while chinook fry will spend less than five months. Sockeye fry usually travel to a lake, where they live for one or two years before heading to the sea. Pink and chum salmon are already smolts by the time they leave the gravel and head straight to the ocean.
Anadromous fish are ones that use freshwater environments (streams, lakes, rivers) for spawning and reproduction and marine/saltwater environments (oceans and seas) for feeding and growing as adults. Salmon are examples of anadromous fish.
By the time they’re heading to the ocean, salmon start to smolt and their scales are growing and turning into a silver color. When they do reach the ocean, what happens next depends, again, on the species, as they might spend one to seven years in the ocean. Coho will spend 4-7 years in the ocean while pink salmon spend exactly 18 months. Sockeye salmon spend roughly two years and coho will spend a year and a half or so. Lastly, chinook can spend eight years in the ocean!
After their time in the ocean and sea, salmon make their way back to the streams and lakes where they were born. Scientists are unsure how exactly salmon find their way back to the exact spots and streams where they were born but many suspect that scents and chemical cues play a part.
- Alaska’s Five Species of Pacific Salmon: Lifecycle and Identification by Ryan Ragan, Alaska Department of Fish and Game
This migration is a taxing one, as salmon stop feeding once they reach freshwater and their bodies are instinctively getting ready for spawning/reproduction. Once they reach the right spot, female salmons make little nests in the gravel by using their tail to move and dislodge stones and pebbles. While that is happening, male salmon will fight for the right to reproduce with the females. Once all of that is settled, the female and male will release eggs and milt at the same time. (Milt is, essentially, salmon semen and is usually sprayed over the eggs in a fertilization attempt.)
The eggs will often settle into the nest of gravel and the female then covers them with loose gravel before moving upstream to do this process all over again. These little nests are often called redds and a single female salmon will often lay thousands of eggs in several redds during her spawning.
Eventually, the adult salmon do die and their bodies provide the rivers and lakes with necessary nutrients. While thousands of eggs may have been laid by a single salmon, very few actually survive to become alevin, fry, and eventually full-grown salmon. Predators, damage from being bounced against gravel, water temperatures, and pesticides all play a factor in whether an egg will hatch.
There are many factors in an ecosystem that are vital for the survival of salmon. In streams, access to calm side channels, boulders, gravel, logs, shade, and more are all important for salmon in the beginning of their lives. Boulders and logs can often protect salmon from predators while side channels and gravel can make sure that salmon aren’t swept downstream during floods or particularly heavy rainfalls before they’re ready to go.
- Warming Rivers Are Causing Die-Offs Among Alaska Salmon by Carly Roth, GlacierHub
Each salmon species will need specific things in their habitats but generally speaking, all salmons need a stable spawning environment for eggs to incubate, great water quality that is cool, oxygenated, and unpolluted, structures/cover from predators, food sources, and access to side channels in streams and rivers. Side channels often are little, calm pools that jut out to the side of rivers and streams. These channels provide a calm and safe place for eggs to incubate before hatching, as it’s less likely that they’ll be swept downstream.
The Importance of Salmon
Salmon are, as previously mentioned, incredibly important for a variety of reasons. First, these fish are an important part in the diet of other marine animals. Unlike their transient counterparts, Southern Resident Killer Whales, for example, feed primarily on chinook salmon. Salmon also provide necessary nutrients for rivers, streams, and lakes once they die.
Additionally, salmon have played a vital role in the cultures of numerous indigenous communities for countless generations. Fishing of salmon has provided an economic benefit for many tribes, both in history and today. Salmon have also been a primary food source and an important part for religious services. These fish have also been a part of myths and stories, sometimes passed down during ceremonies like the Plateau tribes’ First Salmon Feast.
- Why Protect Salmon by Guido Rahr, Wild Salmon Center
How to See and help Salmon
If you want to see salmon during their spawning season or be a part of a watcher program, there are many ways you can be involved. King County has a salmon watcher program, where you can help collect vital data on the salmon in the Lake Washington Watershed. With more data on where salmon are and how many are seen, scientists can get a better understanding of how the populations are doing. The Salmon SEEson, as it’s called by some, can be so much fun!
There are many places around the Pacific Northwest to view salmon traveling upstream. The best time to try and see salmon in streams and rivers is during spawning season, which usually happens in autumn. September to December is a good timeframe! Here are some lists on the best viewing spots:
- Alaska Salmon Viewing Spots from Alaska.org
- Where to See Salmon Runs In and Around Seattle by Douglas Scott, Curbed Seattle
- Salmon Run from RoveMe
- 8 Places to See the Salmon Run Near Vancouver by Taryn Eyton from Inside Vancouver
There are also plenty of ways to help salmon in the Pacific Northwest. First, use natural yard resources and wash your car in an environmentally friendly way. Pesticide and chemical runoff can pollute rivers, streams, and other bodies of water. That pollution can cause many problems for salmon, especially for eggs as they incubate. You can also volunteer to help restore habitats around the Northwest, which would help wildlife and ecosystems of all kinds. Planting trees near rivers can also help prevent erosion into rivers and provide a variety of resources. There are many individual and systematic ways we can help the salmon in the Pacific Northwest (and thus, help many other animals and our ecosystem).
Salmon have played a critical role in the Pacific Northwest for hundreds and thousands of years. These fish are an important part of indigenous communities for religious, economic, and nutritional needs. They also play a vital part in the ecosystem, as many animals rely on these fish as food. Even salmon that made it back to the stream, river, or lake where they were born play an important part by decomposing.