School is in Session: Pacific Salmon

Do you know your coho, chum?

Bright red-orange adult Kokanee salmon swim underwater
Photo: Here we are — me and my fellow Kokanee in Washington’s Gold Creek. We are the same species of salmon as our sockeye brothers and sisters but we don’t migrate to the ocean. Credit: Roger Tabor/USFWS

Howdy humans! Does all this time at home have you going a bit stir crazy? Well we Pacific salmon are envious. We spend our entire lives just trying to make it home and we are pretty exhausted by the time we get there. Just like you, we like a nice place to come home to, especially when things are tough out there. And just like you, we need others to help us along the way. Which means this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship! You can help make our migratory mission a bit easier and we can teach you a little bit about going with the flow.

A colored graphic showing the different kinds of salmon and how varied they appear

You have probably already heard of us, after all Pacific salmon are a pretty big deal in the Pacific Northwest. But did you know that there are five species of Pacific salmon: Chinook, coho, chum, pink and sockeye. Each of us have different appearances, habitat requirements, and life histories. Some of us spawn in mainstem rivers, some in small streams. Some spend years in freshwater, while others spend only months. But we all have one very important thing in common: We all need cool, clean, connected rivers and healthy ocean conditions.

Photo: Salmon and humans go way back in the Pacific NW as this old photo from Oregon shows.

Since we are going to be buddies — and we need all the friends we can get! — here are a few other fun fish facts about me and my salmon family:

  • We aren’t steelhead. No offense. Steelhead are pretty nifty fish but they are more like our cousins, closely related but not salmon. They are, in fact, trout! Unlike salmon, steelhead are sea-run (anadromous) rainbow trout. Another difference is that, unlike salmon that only spawn once and then die, steelhead can return several years in a row to spawn.
  • We are strong and fragile. Salmon can swim thousands of miles in rivers and oceans. They are uniquely adapted to tolerate differences in salinity including making all the physical and internal chemical changes that allow them to move between fresh water streams and the salt-water ocean. They can swim up waterfalls in rivers, and avoid orcas in the ocean. Yet they are fragile in that they are sensitive to warm water temperatures, chemicals in the water, and fine sediment in their streams. As an important food source for humans for thousands of years, they have been highly impacted over the last 100 years by over-fishing.
  • We are kind of a BIG deal. Adult Chinook are known to get bigger than 35 pounds. The largest ever seen was 126 pounds!
  • We nourish the ecosystem at every stage of life (and death!). Adult salmon put all their energy into swimming up river, spawning and making sure their species continues. But don’t be sad! Our legacy lives on and our death is actually just as important as our birth! Salmon carcasses bring valuable nutrients from the ocean to the streams where our young live. The nutrients from the ocean fertilizes the stream and supports the growth of plants and insects. In turn, these insects are available for our babies to eat. The plants and trees provide roots, that prevent erosion, and shade that keeps the stream cool.
  • We are a tree-mendous treat. Salmon are eaten by 137 different species (yikes!). Many of those include different types of forest animals. Bears capture and then sometimes carry us up to the forest for a snack. The leftovers and the bear’s scat (poop) help forest trees grow faster by giving the trees important nutrients, like nitrogen, that the salmon brought from the ocean. Additionally, many water insects that feed on our carcasses change into flying insects eaten by birds and other terrestrial predators. Talk about the circle of life!
Video: An egg-cellent view of baby steelhead (close relatives to us salmon) hatching shows what our “lunch boxes” look like. Credit: Florian Graner, Sealife Productions
  • We pack our own lunch. Each of our eggs contains precious energy in the form of a yolk sac that feed us for the first two months after hatching while we stay hidden in gravel. At this stage, we are called Alevins/Sac fry. We don’t need to leave the safety of their nest (a.k.a., Redd) because our lunch box is attached. After we finish absorbing their yolk, we become free-swimming “fry” and must start eating small stream insects and other small stream animals.
  • We have teeth on our tongues! How is that for a cool party trick? We capture food with our mouth, which is lined with small sharp teeth, and swallow prey whole. We even have teeth on our tongues!
Image: Water connects us all! Here you can see a visual of our life cycle, Credit: Sarah Wolman
  • Redd is our favorite color. Each female chinook salmon builds a Redd (a.k.a., salmon nest made out of cobblestone-sized rocks) and lays between 3–7,000 eggs! Only about 1 out of every 1000 eggs lives and grows to become an adult.
  • We never have to stop to ask for directions. Humans haven’t figured it out yet but seem to think our built-in sense of direction comes from the earth’s magnetic field. I just like to call it magic. And an incredible sense of smell. In the river, we use our sense of smell to find the way back home to the stream where we hatched.
  • We are Olympians. Move over Michael Phelps! Salmon have a very sleek shape, powerful muscles, and a large tail (caudal fin). These adaptations make us fast swimmers. Adults can swim up to 20 MPH. That’s almost as fast as an Olympic sprinter! And we can go the distance. Spring chinook take about 19–20 days to swim from Bonneville dam to Idaho.
  • We need your help to make it home! Water connects us all and there are some simple things you can do at home to help us make it to ours:
  1. Conserve water: Take 5–10 minute showers, turn off water while brushing your teeth
  2. Help restore salmon habitat: Look for opportunities to volunteer and get involved!
  3. Don’t flush medications down the drain: When medications are flushed down the drain they get into streams, rivers and oceans causing known and unknown problems for salmon.
  4. Don’t release non-native species into our waterways: Non-native species, including invasive species, change the ecosystem and compete with native species for food and space.
  5. Consider a conservation career (fisheries/wildlife biologist, zoo veterinarian, curator, etc): You don’t have to be a biologist to work in conservation. For example, engineering and technology are both important fields for conservation.
  6. Teach others how to help salmon: Share what you’ve learned about salmon with your friends and family

Thanks for taking the time to get to know me and learn more about my journey! I am happy to have you as a friend in conservation and, from my home to yours, keep on swimming :)

More cool school resources:

Pacific Salmon and Steelhead Coloring Book

USFWS Fisheries and Aquatic Conservation

Check out All The Fish in our Alaska Region too!



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