Chinook Salmon

Chinook Salmon

Oncorhynchus tshawytscha


    King Salmon, Spring Salmon, Tyee, Winter, Quinnat


    U.S. wild caught from Alaska to California



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chinook salmon

Chinook salmon in shallow water.


Chinook, a.k.a. king salmon, are the most highly prized salmon in the culinary world. They’re the largest Pacific salmon, and the most expensive. Chinook salmon stocks originate in rivers from central California to northwest Alaska and are harvested in ocean and river habitats. The status of chinook populations in California and the Pacific Northwest varies; some populations are healthy while others are listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Chinook salmon stocks in Alaska are generally healthy, and none are listed under the ESA. U.S. fisheries only target healthy stocks of chinook salmon. Scientists actively monitor salmon populations and fisheries, and managers adjust regulations for these fisheries every year, and often in-season as well, according to changes in salmon abundance and other conservation considerations.

Salmon live in the ocean but are born and spawn in freshwater rivers and streams. They’re extremely sensitive to a variety of natural and manmade stressors, on land as well as in the ocean. Changes in ocean and climatic conditions, habitat loss from the construction of dams and urban development, and degraded water quality from agricultural and logging practices are just a few of the factors that have taken a toll on wild salmon populations, especially in the Pacific Northwest. With salmon, managing impacts to habitat is just as important as managing harvests. The two are very closely related – the quality and quantity of salmon habitat impact the abundance of salmon, and the abundance of salmon determines how much salmon may be harvested by commercial, recreational, and subsistence fishermen. NOAA Fisheries and partners constantly monitor salmon abundance and manage harvests accordingly, and also work to restore and maintain healthy habitat to support these resources and fisheries.

Looking Ahead

New scientific information and analyses about the Southern Resident population of killer whales and the extent of their reliance on salmon – particularly large chinook salmon – strongly suggest that chinook abundance is very important to survival and recovery of these whales. Fisheries coastwide are potentially affected by the extensive range of both chinook salmon and killer whales. NOAA Fisheries and Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans are jointly sponsoring a series of scientific workshops to address this issue.




In North America, chinook salmon range from the Monterey Bay area of California to the Chukchi Sea area of Alaska. On the Asian coast, chinook salmon are found from the Anadyr River area of Siberia southward to Hokkaido, Japan.

Salmon are born in freshwater. Freshwater streams, estuaries, and associated wetlands provide vital nursery grounds for chinook salmon. Chinook migrate from freshwater habitats to the ocean to further grow, feed, and mature. Adult salmon leave the ocean, enter freshwater, and migrate upstream to spawn, usually in the stream of their birth.



Like all Pacific salmon, chinook are anadromous – they hatch in freshwater streams and rivers, then after a year or so, they reach the smolt stage and migrate to the ocean. They spend a few years feeding in the ocean, then return to their natal streams or rivers to spawn, generally in summer or early fall. Several stocks return to freshwater during a given season (a seasonal run). Chinook are typically 3 or 4 years old when they return to spawn, their age varies by area. Chinook dig out gravel nests (redds) on stream bottoms where they lay their eggs. All chinook salmon die after spawning. Chinook salmon sexually mature between the ages of 2 and 7 (which means their life span is between 2 and 7 years).

Young chinook salmon feed on terrestrial and aquatic insects, amphipods, and other crustaceans. Older chinook primarily feed on other fish. Fish (such as whiting and mackerel) and birds eat juvenile chinook salmon. Marine mammals, such as orcas and sea lions, and sharks eat adult salmon. Salmon are also primary prey for Southern Resident killer whales, an endangered species.

Salmon carcasses disclaimer – as well as their eggs, embryos, alevins, and fry – transport nutrients from the ocean to stream and lake ecosystems. Carcasses have been shown to improve newly hatched salmon growth and survival by contributing nitrogen and phosphorous compounds to streams. Terrestrial animals and aquatic and riparian plants also take up nutrients from salmon carcasses.



Chinook salmon are the largest of the Pacific salmon, hence the name “king salmon.” They can grow as long as 4.9 feet and up to 129 pounds, but typical length and weight are about 3 feet and 30 pounds. When they’re in the ocean, chinook salmon are blue-green on the back and top of the head with silvery sides and white bellies. They have black spots on the upper half of the body and both lobes of the tail fin. Chinook salmon also have a black pigment along the gum line, thus the nickname "blackmouth."

In freshwater, when they are about to spawn, chinook change to olive brown, red, or purplish; this color change is particularly evident in males. Spawning adult males (4-7 years) can be distinguished by their "ridgeback" condition and their hooked upper jaw. Females can be distinguished by a torpedo-shaped body, robust mid-section, and blunt nose. Juveniles in freshwater (fry) have well-developed parr marks on their sides (the pattern of vertical bars and spots useful for camouflage). Before juveniles migrate to the sea, they lose their parr marks and gain the dark back and light belly characteristic of fish living in open water. Their gills and kidneys also begin to change so they can process salt water.



Scientists assess the abundance of salmon by monitoring and measuring “spawning escapement” (the number of salmon that “escape” the fishery and return to their natal streams to spawn) and their productivity. They also monitor catch throughout the fishing season. Using the escapement measurements and harvest estimates, fisheries scientists at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game regularly report on the status of chinook salmon stocks and fisheries. Scientists also prepare a “Salmon Forecastdisclaimer for Alaska salmon stocks and fisheries. The report reviews the previous season and provides forecasts and harvest projections for the upcoming season.

Every year, the Pacific Fishery Management Council’s Salmon Technical Team prepares an annual postseason review of ocean salmon fisheries off the coasts of Washington, Oregon, and California to assess salmon fishery management performance and stock status. This “Salmon Review” includes information on regulations, catch and effort estimates, spawning escapement, and economics; it is used to inform management of the next season’s fishery.



The status of Chinook stocks in California and the Pacific Northwest varies; although some stocks are listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), several other stocks in this range are considered healthy. As of 2013, two Chinook salmon populations are listed as endangered, and seven are listed as threatened.

In Alaska, population of Chinook salmon stocks varies. Some stocks are in decline while others remain relatively constant or are increasing, but none are listed under the ESA.



In 2007, scientists at NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center and the University of Washington published a study showing how global warming could result in a 20 to 40 percent decline in chinook salmon populations by 2050 in the Snohomish River Basin. They found that habitat deterioration associated with climate change is likely to make salmon recovery more difficult in the Pacific Northwest, especially in relatively pristine, higher elevation river basins.


Harvesting Chinook Salmon

Chinook salmon are harvested in commercial, recreational, and subsistence fisheries in the ocean and inland waters of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska using a variety of gear types. Commercial troll vessels catch salmon by “trolling” their lines with bait or lures through groups of feeding fish. To retrieve hooked fish, the lines are wound on spools by hand or hydraulically, and the fish are gaffed when alongside the vessel. The troll fishery produces low-volume, high-quality product. Troll gear does not contact the ocean floor so it doesn’t impact habitat. Bycatch is also low and usually consists of other salmon species.

Chinook are also harvested in commercial seine and gillnet fisheries (described here disclaimer), both in fisheries targeting healthy stocks of chinook and as bycatch in fisheries targeting other species of salmon.

Both the Pacific Northwest and Alaska also have important subsistence and recreational fisheries for salmon. Salmon is an important source of spiritual and physical sustenance for Northwest and Alaskan Indian tribes, and is culturally important to many other residents of these areas. Subsistence and recreational fishermen use a variety of gear to harvest chinook salmon.



Who’s in charge? NOAA Fisheries, the Pacific and North Pacific Fishery Management Councils, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game disclaimer

Current management:

West Coast: Pacific Coast Salmon Fishery Management Plan

  • Every year, the council reviews reports of the previous fishing season and current estimates of salmon abundance. Using this information, they make recommendations for management of the upcoming fishing season.
    • Their general goal is to allow fishermen to harvest the maximum amount of salmon that will support the fishery while preventing overharvest of the resource and ensuring that salmon populations with low abundance can rebuild to a healthy level.
  • Specific management measures vary year to year depending on current salmon abundance and include size limits, season length, quotas, and gear restrictions.
  • Management of chinook salmon must also comply with laws such as the Endangered Species Act.
    • Final recommendations are implemented by NOAA Fisheries on May 1 each year.
    • Check here for the current season’s management recommendations. State and tribal managers use council management recommendations to shape their policies for inland fisheries, to ensure that conservation objectives are met.

Alaska: Fishery Management Plan for Salmon Fisheries in the Exclusive Economic Zone off the Coast of Alaska

  • All management of the salmon fisheries in federal waters is deferred to the State of Alaska disclaimer, which is also responsible for managing the commercial, recreational, and subsistence fisheries for salmon in state waters. This ensures that management is consistent throughout salmon’s range.
  • Managers regulate the fishery based on “escapement goals” to ensure harvests are sustainable – they want enough salmon to be able to escape the fishery and return to freshwater to spawn and replenish the population.

Salmon fishery management largely relies on in-season assessment of how many salmon return to freshwater to spawn. Managers set harvest levels based on these returns – when abundance is high and the number of fish returning is much higher than that needed to meet escapement goals, harvest levels are set higher. In years of low abundance, harvest levels are lowered. During the season, scientists monitor catch and escapement, comparing current returns with those from previous years, to keep an eye on abundance and actively manage the fishery.

Adult salmon returning to Washington migrate through both U.S. and Canadian waters and are harvested by fishermen from both countries.

  • To coordinate management, research, and enhancement of these shared Pacific salmon stocks, the United States and Canada signed the Pacific Salmon Treaty disclaimer in 1985. They created the Pacific Salmon Commission disclaimer to implement the treaty and provide regulatory advice and recommendations to U.S. and Canadian management agencies that regulate salmon fisheries.
  • In 2009, the two countries ratified a new abundance-based management agreement, extending this bilateral management process through 2018. This agreement included reductions in harvest rates of chinook in mixed-stock marine fisheries off the west coast of Vancouver Island and in Southeast Alaska.


Annual Harvest

U.S. commercial fishermen harvested more than 14.3 million pounds of Chinook salmon in 2012.The majority of the harvest came from Alaska and Washington, with 4.7 and 4.6 million pounds, respectively. Oregon fishermen harvested 1.8 million pounds, and the rest came from California.



Most of the chinook in the U.S. market comes from U.S. fisheries (mainly off Alaska, Washington, and Oregon, with a small amount from California) and Canadian fisheries.

The 2012 U.S. Chinook harvest was valued at more than $48.5 million. The Alaskan and Washington portions of the catch were valued at $16.5 million and $12.1 million pounds, respectively.



Chinook salmon are a favorite catch of recreational fishermen. In fact, they might be the most highly prized sport fish in Alaska. To ensure recreational fisheries are sustainable, West Coast anglers are only allowed to keep a certain number of salmon per fishing trip. In Alaska, regulations vary by area and individual fisheries. Recreational fisheries in high-use areas (Cook Inlet, Southeast Alaska, Copper River) are regulated through management plans that allocate fish between competing commercial and recreational fishermen.



Chinook salmon have a pronounced buttery, rich taste. Their oily meat is softer than other wild salmon species. The meat is almost always red, never pink, except for the rare white-meat variety disclaimer. Though lighter in color, white chinook taste the same as the darker variety.

Chinook is the most expensive of all salmon species. Chinook salmon are often marketed by the name of the river system from which they come. For example, salmon lovers are probably familiar with the celebrated Copper River salmon. The return of Copper River salmon in late May or early June heralds the beginning of Alaska’s wild salmon season.



Fresh mainly in the summer and early fall, though the timing varies by area and fishery; frozen year-round.



Chinook salmon is low in sodium and is a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, and a very good source of protein, niacin, vitamin B12, and selenium.

Servings 1
Serving Weight 100 g (raw)
Calories 179
Protein 19.93 g
Fat, total 10.43 g
Saturated fatty acids, total 3.1 g
Carbohydrate 0 g
Sugars, total 0 g
Fiber, total dietary 0 g
Cholesterol 50 mg
Selenium 36.5 mcg
Sodium 47 mg

Chinook Salmon Table of Nutrition