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Marine Life Encyclopedia

Ocean Fishes

Sockeye Salmon

Oncorhynchus nerka


North America, West Coast, Pacific Ocean


Rivers, lakes, and coastal seas


Active predator


Order: Salmoniformes, Family: Salmonidae

Sockeye salmon are native to the western coast of North America and reside in the northern Pacific Ocean.3 They spend most of their life at sea, but during mating season from July to October, they move inland—some populations as far as western Idaho—for spawning.1 Sockeye salmon hatch in lakes, rivers and streams where they spend their first few years until they develop into young salmon and migrate to the Pacific Ocean. However, there is one sub-species of sockeye salmon called Kokanee that are smaller and land-locked, and do not migrate to the ocean. In the Pacific Ocean, sockeye salmon can be found at depths of 15-33 meters.1 After spending two to three years at sea where they feed and grow, sockeye salmon return to freshwater to spawn, typically in the same stream where they hatched. During mating season, female sockeye salmon lay their eggs in a bed of gravel and then choose a male to fertilize them.1 Males present themselves to the female multiple times, and she judges them on their color and size, to choose the best father for her young.1

Sockeye salmon typically live around 4 to 5 years. Sockeye salmon reach reproductive age at 5 years and die after spawning.1 The oldest sockeye salmon ever caught was estimated to be 8 years old.1 Sockeye salmon are social fish and swim in runs together while making their way to mating grounds. They are also known to form social hierarchies during reproduction whereby the largest male fish are usually the most dominant.1 Sockeye salmon have great senses. Their strong sense of smell helps guide them back to their home stream.

Because of their large size, sockeye salmon are easily spotted by predators.1 Primarily, bears and birds predate on these salmon.1 Sockeye salmon are also some of the most commonly fished species in British Columbia, Canada and Alaska, United States. An important element to consider when talking about salmon as food, is their ability to reproduce. Currently there are many outdated, manmade dams that stand in the way of salmons’ ability to safely migrate upstream to spawning grounds. Hydroelectric dams1 specifically, catch and kill sockeye salmon as they attempt to swim through them—unsuccessfully. This clear problem with dams has led to the decline of many salmon populations including sockeye salmon and Chinook salmon. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Species Report considers some sockeye salmon populations as threatened and endangered due to habitat degradation and overfishing.1 Overfishing is rapidly depleting many of the world’s fish populations. Oceana works to reduce overfishing by advocating for science-based catch limits, reducing harmful fishing subsidies, and stopping illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. We are campaigning to stop overfishing and promote sustainable fishing. Join Oceana to learn how you can help restore ocean abundance by stopping overfishing in our oceans.

Fun Facts About Sockeye Salmon

1. Sockeye salmon are born in lakes, rivers, or streams, but spend most of their adult life in the Pacific Ocean.1

2. Sockeye salmon can be found between northern Alaska and northern California.1

3. Sockeye salmon change color as they grow older.1

4. Sockeye salmon can sometimes have fine black speckles that differentiate them from other salmon species.3

5. A baby sockeye salmon is called a fry.1

Engage Youth with Sailors for the Sea

Oceana joined forces with Sailors for the Sea, an ocean conservation organization dedicated to educating and engaging the world’s boating community. Sailors for the Sea developed the KELP (Kids Environmental Lesson Plans) program to create the next generation of ocean stewards. Click here or below to download hands-on marine science activities for kids.

Kids Environmental Lesson Plans

Additional Resources:

1. Animal Diversity

2. IUCN RedList  


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