Discover the Official State Fish of Alaska

Written by Carrie Woodward
Updated: September 9, 2023
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The official Alaska state fish is the king salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha), also known as Chinook salmon. This species is native to the North Pacific Ocean and is the largest species of Pacific salmon. The king salmon has been the state fish of Alaska since 1962. 

King salmon play an important role in the economy and culture of Alaska. Since there are king salmon fisheries, they are a popular target for sport angling, and they are a favorite food, king salmon provide both income and food for many Alaska residents. This article reviews the appearance and key facts of king salmon, the fish’s lifecycle, their habitat, and where you can angle for this state fish of Alaska. Alongside five other official state animals of Alaska, the king salmon inhabits an important place in culture and commerce. Let’s dive in to learn more now!

State fish of Alaska

About the State Fish of Alaska

The fish known as “king salmon” are also known by their scientific name of Oncorhynchus tshawytscha. Oncorhynchus tshawytscha belongs to the salmonid family Salmonidae. King salmon are closely related to other commonly-known fish, including trout, freshwater whitefish, and graylings. These big fish are also the largest species in the genus Oncorhynchus, which includes five other Pacific salmon species. 

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King salmon go by several different names, which vary based on the part of Alaska or other regions of the United States. For example, the indigenous Chinookan people have called them “Tyee salmon.” Because this fish has long played such an important role in Chinookan culture, the king salmon is also often referred to as the “Chinook” salmon. In Canada, you may hear people call them “Quinnat” or “spring salmon.” 

How to Identify King Salmon

A happy, smiling fisherwoman holds a large King salmon that she caught after a long fight.  She is standing on a rocky bank of a remote river in the mountains of Alaska.

King salmon are the largest among the Pacific salmon species and popular target for anglers.

©FarFlungFotos/Shutterstock.com

King salmon are the largest and longest species of salmon among all other Pacific salmon species. The gigantic fish can reach lengths of 4 or 5 feet long and commonly weigh up to 100 pounds! More commonly, king salmon measure about 36 inches in length and weigh 30 pounds or more. However, the biggest king salmon caught in Alaska weighed an incredible 126 pounds! This fish was the largest king salmon ever recorded as being caught.

King salmon have a recognizable appearance, with silver scales on their sides, blue-green backs, and white stomachs. They are speckled with black spots along their tails and part of their body. When they are spawning, these colors may change. In fact, spawning king salmon swimming in fresh water may have colors ranging from red to orangey copper to gray, varying with their location and age. Male king salmon often have more red coloration, while females are more typically gray. With age, males often gain a “ridgeback” appearance, hooked noses, or hooked jaws. In comparison, females are torpedo-shaped and have blunt noses. 

The Life Cycle of the King Salmon

King salmon hatch in freshwater and live in main-channel river areas for their first year of life. The next year, during the springtime, they then migrate into salt water estuaries. Alaskan king salmon typically hatch in the late winter or early spring months. The exact time period varies depending on the temperature of the water and when their parents’ spawning took place. After hatching, these fish are called “alevins.” They live in the gravel where their mother excavated the egg-laying location, and absorb nutrients from their attached yolk sacks. As juveniles, they make their way through the river gravel. At that point, king salmon are sorted into two categories. Ocean types migrate to saltwater during their first year of life. Stream types live in the fresh water for a full year. Then they finally migrate to the saltwater during their second year alive. 

After spending at least a year, but up to several years, feeding and growing in the ocean water, king salmon return to fresh water. There, they spawn the next generation and end their lifecycle, dying after spawning. King salmon become mature between their second and seventh years of life. Because of this, the fish that return to freshwater to spawn can come in a great range of sizes. 

The run from freshwater spawning territory to saltwater feeding territory can be an extensive journey. Some salmon may swim further than 2,000 river miles in just 60 days! When the female salmon lays her eggs, she may deposit between 3,000 and 14,000 eggs. These are usually laid in multiple gravel nests, excavated from relatively deep and fast-moving water areas. 

The Diet of King Salmon

The diet of king salmon can vary depending on their life stage and where they are. Their diets may also be impacted by factors like the temperature of the water, the availability of different species for them to prey on, and other aspects of the broader ecosystem.

In general, king salmon eat plankton and insects during their time in freshwater. Once they do reach the ocean, they grow quickly. In saltwater, they eat a variety of ocean organisms, including herring, squid, and crustaceans, which provide many nutrients and allow king salmon to double their weight and size in just one summer.

Where to Find King Salmon

An Alaskan King Salmon

King salmon run up freshwater streams, estuaries, and rivers as they migrate to and from the ocean.

©Alaskan Guide/Shutterstock.com

Spawning king salmon live in f​resh water streams and estuaries. These places also provide a vital habitat for eggs, fry (just-hatched fish), and juvenile king salmon. In Alaska, king salmon live in great numbers across habitats, from the southeastern panhandle to the Yukon River. Major populations return to the Yukon, Kuskokwim, Nushagak, Susitna, Kenai, Copper, Alsek, Taku, and Stikine rivers, as well as smaller streams.

In particular, the Kenai River on the Kenai Peninsula has one of the largest king salmon runs in the state and is a popular choice among anglers. The Kenai Peninsula also has the Kasilof River, where anglers may find a more peaceful environment with fewer anglers, and beautiful scenery. The Copper River is popular among anglers for having both a strong salmon run and a powerful river, which offers a challenge for competitive fishers. Additionally, Kodiak Island, an island off of Alaska’s southern coast, has abundant salmon. These are just a few among Alaska’s many popular salmon runs where you may gain plentiful opportunities to catch these fish.

Fishing for King Salmon

King salmon are a popular target for anglers. If you want to pursue any species of salmon, but especially king salmon, Alaska is the place to be. Fishing for king salmon is a popular sport because these strong, large fish present a significant challenge. There are many tips for fishing for king salmon, as they are considered one of the most difficult to catch. However, if you are determined, check out one of the locations mentioned above or look into other places to fish in Alaska.

If you would like to fish for king salmon, you must purchase a sport fishing license. A king salmon stamp will allow you to fish for king salmon in Alaska. These sport fish licenses and king salmon stamps may be purchased online or at most sporting goods stores. You may also purchase them at Alaska Fish and Game offices.

King Salmon Conservation

King salmon are a vitally important species. Not only are they the largest species in several of their watersheds in Alaska, they are the largest of their kind in the entire world! Since king salmon are genetically unique, relatively rare, and important to Alaska’s economy and culture, protecting them is very important. 

Since king salmon are popular among the commercial fishing industry and personal fisheries, the delicate ecosystem hangs in the balance. Thanks to The Kenai River Sportfishing Association (KRSA), advocates are helping this state fish of Alaska to live and grow in healthy ecosystems that let the species thrive.

Since king salmon are a highly-sought-after species of fish, Alaska closely regulates sport fishing and commercial fishing. Each year, the U.S./Canada Pacific Salmon Treaty guidelines help to establish a harvest quota. An index called the SEAK king salmon abundance index uses a statistical model to allocate the number of fish that may be fished for commercially.

However, recent lawsuits have called into question the environmental impact of salmon fishing since king salmon are an important food for orcas swimming in the Pacific Ocean. Researchers study king salmon as part of broader ecosystem study and conservation efforts. Understanding the king salmon’s migration patterns, population dynamics, and needs can shed light on the health of the wider ecosystem and other species that depend on king salmon to help balance their environment. Current conservation efforts aim to protect the fish populations and ensure their long-term survival.

Cultural Value of King Salmon

Long before king salmon was designated the state fish of Alaska, this species has had profound cultural among indigenous Alaskan communities. It has an important place in the cultural heritage, traditions, and subsistence lifestyle of various groups. Native fishing practices are part of cultural traditions, which include the passing down of knowledge and skills from one generation to the next. Even today, catching and eating king salmon has a role in preserving their cultural traditions.

You can see this in the consistent place that king salmon has inhabited in food customs and celebrations. However, also reflective of king salmon’s role in native culture is the way that king salmon appears in ceremonies, festivals, and feasts. Native practices include expressing gratitude to the salmon for how it offers sustenance for the people to live and survive. King salmon also shows up in indigenous art, such as carvings, paintings, baskets, and other pieces.

Salmon also appear in oral traditions, the stories and legends of indigenous communities. These stories reinforce the significance of salmon as a provider and the importance of caring for and stewarding natural resources, including the rivers and the salmon themselves.

Uses for King Salmon

Alaskan coho salmon for dinner. Sustainably caught Alaskan salmon.

King salmon makes a delicious meal when cooked in a cast iron pan, grilled, or sauteed.

©Agave Photo Studio/Shutterstock.com

King salmon is a delicious, versatile fish that is a favorite wild fish for eating. Many people consider king salmon to be one of the best types of salmon to eat, due to its delicious flavor. In fact, it is renowned for having a rich flavor, firm texture, and high fat content. This makes it a popular choice in fine dining and the foodie world. King salmon fillets are also used in a variety of dishes. It may be grilled, baked, smoked, or included in sushi.

You may cook wild-caught king salmon according to your own personal preference. However, many people enjoy its thick, meat-textured flesh grilled, seared, or sauteed. Wild king salmon has a thick texture and a rich consistency. The fat of king salmon fish can be so creamy that it is considered a delicacy. However, this robust fish texture and flavor also does well when paired with strong spices or sauces. 

In addition to its place in food culture, king salmon may be processed into other products. The king salmon’s heads, frames, and offal, can be processed into fishmeal, fish oil, or used as pet food. Using these byproducts is an important part of maintaining the overall sustainability of harvesting the fish.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Dec Hogan/Shutterstock.com


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About the Author

Carrie is a writer and fan of all types of plants and animals. Her apartment is home to more than dozen different houseplants and she aspires to adopt more in the near future. You can find Carrie taking long walks or reading a book under the trees in the park.

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