What is a Red Salmon?

Sara Schmidt

The Northern Pacific Ocean, and its adjacent rivers, are home to a species of fish known as the red salmon. Also called blueback salmon or sockeye salmon, the fish are the third most common species of Pacific salmon. Red salmon that are completely landlocked in lakes are known as kokanee.

Adult red salmon feed on squid.
Adult red salmon feed on squid.

Adult sockeyes feature dull, green heads and red bodies during spawning, giving them the name red salmon. Younger salmon of the species are usually a deep blue-black color with silver-tinted scales. The fish's tail, back, and dorsal fin are solidly colored throughout, and normally do not feature any distinctive markings or spots. Male blueback salmon grow humps on their backs, as well as hooked teeth and jaws, during their journey to freshwater from the saltwater of the Pacific Ocean.

Smoked red salmon canapés with crème fraîche, caviar, and dill.
Smoked red salmon canapés with crème fraîche, caviar, and dill.

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Sockeye fry, or young fish, prefer zooplankton to eat, such as cladocerans, ostracods, and copepods. They also eat small insects. Adult red salmon continue to eat these foods, though some larger animals, such as squid, small fish, and fish larvae, make up the rest of their diet.

These fish can be found in a fairly wide range of habitat. They swim as far south as the Columbia River in the eastern Pacific Ocean, and as far north as the Canadian Arctic area. Sockeye salmon can also be located in Japan. Lake-based, landlocked red salmon can be found in a dozen states across the United States, as well as in Canada.

When they are born, sockeye fry live up to three years in freshwater prior to migrating to saltwater. Once in the ocean, they spend up to four years there, rapidly growing, before returning to spawn in the freshwater. Salmon are thought to use their keen sense of smell in order to return to their freshwater lakes of origin. Following spawning, salmon die within weeks. Some sockeye, however, do not migrate at all.

Commercially, red salmon are caught and sold for food. Fishermen often use gillnets and seines to capture this species. The fish are sold frozen, canned, and fresh, depending on the location of the market. Some people living on the coast also fly fish for the salmon personally. Salmon has a firm texture and strong flavor.

Listed as an endangered species under the United States Endangered Species Act, red salmon in the Pacific Northwest are protected by the National Marine Fisheries Service in the Snake River. In Lake Ozette, Washington, the fish are protected as a threatened species. Red salmon in other areas are not considered endangered or threatened.

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