Sockeye Salmon

Oncorhynchus nerka

Last updated: May 23, 2022
Verified by: AZ Animals Staff
Image Credit Vasik Olga/Shutterstock.com

Called "red salmon" because their skin turns bright red to dirty red during spawning season

Sockeye Salmon Scientific Classification

Kingdom
Animalia
Phylum
Chordata
Class
Actinopterygii
Order
Salmoniformes
Family
Salmonidae
Genus
Oncorhynchus
Scientific Name
Oncorhynchus nerka

Read our Complete Guide to Classification of Animals.

Sockeye Salmon Conservation Status

Sockeye Salmon Locations

Sockeye Salmon Locations

Sockeye Salmon Facts

Prey
Zooplankton, amphipods, insects
Group Behavior
  • School
Fun Fact
Called "red salmon" because their skin turns bright red to dirty red during spawning season
Estimated Population Size
Unknown
Biggest Threat
Overfishing
Most Distinctive Feature
Bright red to dirty red coloration during spawning season
Other Name(s)
Red salmon, kokanee salmon, blueback salmon
Gestation Period
90 - 150 days
Optimum PH Level
7.5
Incubation Period
90 to 150 days
Habitat
Ocean and tributaries
Diet
Carnivore
Type
Salmon
Common Name
Sockeye salmon
Number Of Species
1

Sockeye Salmon Physical Characteristics

Skin Type
Scales
Lifespan
5 years
Weight
Up to 9.3 pounds
Length
1.5 - 2.5 feet
Age of Sexual Maturity
5 years

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The sockeye salmon, also called red salmon, is a Pacific salmon known for its deep red hue during spawning season.

As an anadromous species, sockeye salmon start their lives in freshwater before migrating as far as 1000 miles downriver to the ocean for several years. Then, when it is time to spawn, the fish returns to its freshwater origin for mating. Being semelparous, the fish die after their first spawning.

As with Chinook salmon, some species of “reds” can live their whole lives in freshwater, not making the journey to the ocean. These are called kokanee. Another name used for the fish is “blueback salmon,” for the dark blue color it features throughout its time in saltwater and until spawning. Its scientific name is Oncorhynchus nerka.

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Sockeye salmon is a popular species for sport fishing enthusiasts, commercial fishermen and chefs. It is also an important part of the food web, sustaining many species reliant on its meat each year. Humans, bears, eagles, wolves, sharks, lampreys, and marine mammals all enjoy the fish’s taste. The fish are expensive and considered high-quality fare, typically fetching a price of between $15 and $30 per pound. Red salmon caught wild in Alaska is also an important tourism attraction to the 49th state. The chance to catch one of these beautiful wild Alaska specimens is an experience commonly packaged as a first-class adventure.

5 Sockeye Salmon Facts

  1. Anadromous species: Sockeye salmon are like other Pacific salmon, starting life in freshwater before migrating into the ocean for several years, then returning to freshwater origins for spawning
  2. Color-changing fish: Sockeyes live most of their lives as a deep blue color, but then turn deep red during spawning season
  3. Semelparous: These red salmon spawn only once in their lifetime, dying after reproduction
  4. Important to the economy: The “red salmon run” from the ocean to spawning takes place each summer or fall, attracting thousands of tourists and fishermen to known spawning grounds and adding millions of dollars to local economies
  5. Tastes great: Red salmon is a tasty meat that fetches a good price because it is loved by chefs, sport fishermen, commercial fishermen and diners worldwide

Classification and Scientific Name

Scientifically named Oncorhynchus nerka, sockeye salmon is also called red salmon, kokanee salmon, and blueback salmon. The fish is a member of the family Salmonidae, order Salmoniformes and class Actinopterygii. There are about 66 species of fish in this family.

The name of the genus Oncorhynchus comes from the Greek ónkos, meaning “lump, bend” and rhúnkhos, “snout.” This meaning refers to the male fish’s development of a dramatically hooked nose during spawning season, also when its skin turns brilliant red. The second part of its scientific name, “nerka,” comes from the Russian term for anadromous nature of the fish. The common name “sockeye” comes from the Salish North American native tribe’s word “sukkegh,” meaning “fish of fishes.”



The common names of red salmon, kokanee salmon, and blueback salmon represent different life stages or populations of the species, but not unique types or subspecies. “Red salmon” comes from the bright red color males turn during spawning season. Females also take on reddish-pink color, but not as vibrant in hue or consistent throughout the external body as males.

“Blueback salmon” is another reference to the sockeye’s coloration. From juvenile development through adulthood, the fish are a silvery color with deep blue tones along the spine to blend into their saltwater habitat.

“Kokanee” is from the widespread North American indigenous term kekeni, Sinixt for “salmon.” Red salmon are typically referred to as kokanee when they are landlocked and live throughout their lives in a freshwater lake, versus swimming downstream to live in the ocean.

Appearance

Sockeye salmon typically measure 1.5 feet to 2.5 feet and weigh between 4 to 15 pounds. Kokanee landlocked freshwater salmon usually only grow to a maximum of 1.2 feet.

The wild sockeye salmon’s appearance is an important feature in differentiating it from other types of salmon in the Salmonidae family. The ocean-bound young fish takes on a flank color of iridescent silver with a white underside and shimmery blue-green back along the spine. This combination of colors provides the reason for the “blueback” nickname. It also helps the fish camouflage itself in ocean waters, blending in well with its surroundings. Unlike other salmon, the fins and tail have no spots on them, just as the back only has small black speckles, if any at all.

During spawning season and as the fish make their way from the ocean to their freshwater home, their coloration changes. Females take on pink and red tones, primarily on their backs. Males develop an all-over, vibrant red hue. This red coloration actually comes from the fish’s diet, with a heavy concentration of plankton and crustaceans like shrimp. The male fish’s snout also turns dark green in deep contrast to the red body color. The male snout enlarges and becomes dramatically hooked.

This change in color also indicates that the fish have less body fat than when in saltwater. As they lose their body fat, they are less revered for their taste than pre-spawning fish.

A bright red sockeye salmon swimming
Male sockeye salmons faces change to a beak shape and they develop a hump during spawning season

Beat J Korner/Shutterstock.com

Distribution, Population, and Habitat

Red salmon originate along the western coast of North America where they migrate from freshwater tributaries into the Pacific Ocean. They start their lives by hatching into freshwater lakes, rivers and streams. Lake-bound sockeyes can live in freshwater throughout their lives and are called kokanee. But most of these fish live a few years in freshwater before migrating up to 1000 miles downstream into the ocean for 2 to 3 years. Then they swim back again to their freshwater home when they reach reproductive age, sometime between July and October of their spawning year.

Once they reach the Pacific Ocean, sockeyes live at depths of 15 to 33 meters, 49 to 108 feet. When swimming in the ocean and upstream for spawning, these highly social fish travel in schools. In 2010, the world population of sockeye salmon was listed as of “least concern” by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Distribution of these fish remains on the North American west coast, primarily in Alaska, British Columbia, Yukon, Alberta and Washington. There are also populations in Russia and Asia, with Japan having the salmon present due to human introduction of the species to this region. Some populations are marked as extinct in parts of the United States and Canada, specifically in areas of Alberta, Idaho, Washington and Oregon. Overfishing and global climate change are the biggest threats to sockeye salmon.

Where to Find Sockeye Salmon and How to Catch Them

The most abundant populations of sockeye salmon legally open to fishing are throughout the states of Alaska and Washington, as well as along the Canadian west coast. These regions boast hearty sportfishing tourism for red salmon spawning runs up rivers and streams from the Pacific Ocean. The exact timing of the spawning run varies according to geographic location. But most take place between July and October each year, making these months prime sockeye fishing season. Each state in the U.S. also has its own licensing requirements and allowed timeframes for catching the fish, along with limits on how many can be caught by each licensed individual. During the open season, fishermen can pull the salmon out of freshwater depths as shallow as 6 inches.

Sockeye Salmon Predators and Prey

Sockeye salmon are carnivores treasured by fishermen, chefs and diners for their delicious and nutritious deep red meat. The fish are a critical part of the food web, providing reliably timed sustenance for many large land animals each year.

What eats sockeye salmon?

Because sockeye salmon congregate and travel in large social schools from the ocean to their freshwater spawning grounds, these schools provide great hunting opportunity for water-based and land predators. In the ocean, they are prey to many marine mammals like sharks and lampreys. In rivers, streams and lakes, the salmon are a preferred food source for bears, eagles, wolves and humans. Juvenile salmon are easy prey for birds and other fish. Because of their size, the spawning fish provide a full meal for even large predators. Their excellent taste is why humans will pay a substantial price of $15 to $30 per pound for the meat in the United States.

What do sockeye salmon eat?

Sockeye are different than many other types of salmon, in that they are primarily carnivores. They do not eat plants like many other fish in their family. Instead, they eat mostly zooplankton at all stages of life and in both freshwater and saltwater habitats. They also eat tiny crustaceans called amphipods and both land and water insects.

Sockeye Salmon Reproduction and Lifespan

Sockeyes are hatched into freshwater lakes, rivers and streams. Most live there for a few years before migrating up to 1000 miles to the Pacific Ocean. Some others, called kokanee, remain in freshwater throughout their lives.

Red salmon live several years in saltwater until reaching reproductive age at 5 years. Then, the fish migrate back to the river or stream where they originated. After a difficult journey swimming up to 1,000 miles back upstream, they spawn and die.

Female sockeyes dig a small pit in the gravel bed of their freshwater spawning grounds. They lay their eggs in the gravel pit. Males present themselves to the females for mating. After the female chooses a suitably sized and colored male to fertilize the eggs, this fertilization occurs. She then covers the eggs with gravel and silt for incubation. The eggs hatch after 90 to 150 days.

Sockeye Salmon In Fishing And Cooking

Sockeye salmon are fished both recreationally and commercially. These fish are much-loved for their meat with its deep red color and distinctively salmon taste. It is caught commercially using gill nets and recreationally using line and lure fishing methods like fly fishing and spinning. The prime season for catching these fish in freshwater is from July to October of each year. In 2019 alone, 290 million pounds of salmon were caught by commercial fishermen.

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Sockeye Salmon FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Where are Sockeye Salmon found?

Sockeyes are found along the northwestern Pacific coast of the United States and Canada. You can fish for them in Alaska, Yukon, British Columbia, Alberta and Washington.

What is sockeye salmon?

Sockeye salmon is an anadromous species of fish in the Salmonidae family. It is large-bodied, growing between 1.5 feet and 2.5 feet long. Its meat is red and rich in omega 3 fatty acids and protein. It is known as red salmon because its skin turns a bright orange-red color during spawning season, as it migrates from its saltwater habitat back to its freshwater origins for reproduction and death.

Why is it called sockeye salmon?

The name “sockeye” comes from the Salish North American native tribe’s word “sukkegh,” meaning “fish of fishes.” Because of the fish’s red color during spawning season, it is also commonly called red salmon. Other names include kokanee, a term given by indigenous peoples to landlocked sockeyes living in freshwater throughout their lifespan.

Is sockeye salmon better than regular salmon?

Sockeye salmon is considered the best salmon meat because of its deep red color and distinctive salmon flavor. The meat is rich in omega 3 fatty acids and protein like other types of salmon. But chefs and many diners prefer red sockeye meat over other species.

How is sockeye salmon different?

One of the most intriguing facts about sockeye salmon is the fish’s color-changing skin. During spawning season, the typically silvery blue-green fish take on red hues. The females feature darkening red along their backs. But males become a vibrant deep red color all over their bodies, except for their heads that turn a deep forest green. The male snout also changes shape during spawning season and becomes hook-nosed.

Is sockeye salmon the healthiest?

Wild-caught Pacific salmon is the healthiest salmon to eat. It offers better nutrition than Atlantic or farmed salmon. When compared to pink salmon, sockeye contains far greater nutritional value. The red salmon offers 35% more omega 3 fatty acids, 20% greater B6, 13% greater B12, and 5% greater B5. It also offers 91% more riboflavin, 70% more thiamin, 50% more folate and 6% more niacin.

Sources
  1. Wikipedia, Available here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sockeye_salmon
  2. NOAA Fisheries, Available here: https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/species/sockeye-salmon
  3. Britannica, Available here: https://www.britannica.com/animal/sockeye-salmon
  4. Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Available here: https://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=sockeyesalmon.main
  5. National Geographic, Available here: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/fish/facts/sockeye-salmon
  6. Fish Watch, Available here: https://www.fishwatch.gov/profiles/sockeye-salmon
  7. Wild Salmon Center, Available here: https://wildsalmoncenter.org/salmon-species/sockeye/
  8. Pacific Seafood, Available here: https://www.pacificseafood.com/species/sockeye-salmon-2/
  9. Wholefoods Market, Available here: https://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/departments/seafood/sockeye-salmon
  10. Idaho Official Government Website, Available here: https://idfg.idaho.gov/conservation/sockeye
  11. Chefs Resources, Available here: https://www.chefs-resources.com/seafood/finfish/salmon-varieties/wild-sockeye-salmon/
  12. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Available here: https://wdfw.wa.gov/species-habitats/species/oncorhynchus-nerka
  13. Salmon and Sable, Available here: https://salmonandsable.com/pages/sockeye-salmon
  14. Kings County, Available here: https://kingcounty.gov/services/environment/animals-and-plants/salmon-and-trout/identification/sockeye.aspx

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