Pink Salmon

Pink Salmon

Oncorhynchus gorbuscha


    Humpback Salmon, Humpy, Gorbusch, Haddo, Holia


    U.S. wild caught from Alaska to Oregon



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Pink Salmon

Pink salmon in Washington's Elwha River.


If you’ve eaten canned salmon, you’ve probably had pink salmon. Found on both sides of the North Pacific, pink salmon are the most abundant Pacific salmon. In North America, they’re found from Alaska to around Puget Sound in Washington State. They’re most abundant in Alaska and have been harvested and canned commercially there since the late 1800s. Today, pink salmon account for almost half the salmon harvested in Alaska’s fisheries. Pink salmon populations in Alaska are well-managed and stable.

Pink salmon are harvested in smaller numbers in the Pacific Northwest, mainly off Washington in odd-numbered years due to the pink’s life cycle. Pink salmon have the shortest lifespan of all Pacific salmon – they mature and complete their entire life cycle in 2 years. This predictable life cycle has created genetically distinct odd-year and even-year populations of pink salmon. Fish coming in odd years are unrelated to the individuals returning in even years. In the southern part of their range (Washington), more pink salmon return in odd years and therefore the harvest is more plentiful. For example, in 2009, fishermen in Washington brought 17 million pounds of pink salmon to port; in 2010, harvests amounted to only 12,000 pounds. Lower harvests in some years have more to do with the species’ unique life cycle than declining populations. Scientists constantly monitor salmon abundance and managers set annual harvest limits accordingly.

Looking Ahead

Pink salmon abundance is notoriously difficult to forecast due to their highly variable mortality and brief 1½ year residence in the ocean. For the past several years, the Southeast Alaska Coastal Monitoring project at NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center has measured juvenile pink salmon abundance at sea as part of their study of the marine ecosystem of Southeast Alaska and the adjacent Gulf of Alaska. Their estimates have helped scientists and managers improve their forecasts of pink salmon harvests and helped fishermen and processors prepare for the season ahead.



Pink salmon are found on both sides of the North Pacific, from Alaska to Puget Sound in Washington and from Russia to North Korea. In North America, they’re found from the Arctic coast in Alaska and territories in Canada to central California, although they do not reproduce in significant numbers below the Puget Sound in Washington State. Pink salmon were accidentally introduced to Lake Superior in 1956 and became an established population, spreading throughout the Great Lakes.

Salmon are born in freshwater. Freshwater streams, estuaries, and associated wetlands provide vital nursery grounds for pink salmon. Pink salmon 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. Pink salmon spawn in rivers closer to tidewater than most other Pacific salmon species, generally within 30 miles of a river mouth. Pink salmon in the Great Lakes are the only population known to complete their entire life cycle in freshwater.



Like other Pacific salmon, pink salmon are anadromous – they hatch in freshwater streams and rivers then migrate to the ocean to feed and grow. Pink salmon are similar to chum salmon – they do not reside in freshwater for an extended period like coho, chinook, or sockeye salmon. Instead, young pink salmon (fry) typically migrate out to sea soon after they are born. They usually weigh about 0.0004 pounds at this point - about half the weight of a paper clip. Once they reach the ocean, they feed voraciously and grow rapidly; in fact, they’re among the fastest growing of the Pacific salmon species. After about 1½ years of feeding and growing in the ocean, maturing pink salmon return to freshwater to spawn, usually from August to October. Females pick suitable nesting places and construct nests (redds) in the riverbed by turning on their sides and vigorously flexing their bodies and tails, digging a shallow hole. Females have between 1,200 and 1,900 eggs. They deposit them in the redds, where males fertilize them. The female stays and defends her redd from other females until she dies, usually within 2 weeks. All pink salmon die after they spawn. They typically spawn around the age of 2 (which means their life span is about 2 years). Because the pink salmon life cycle is so regular, independent populations spawn in even and odd years; for example, in the southern part of their range, they usually spawn in odd years. Throughout most of Alaska, there is no dominant year, except in the northwestern part of Alaska where even-year runs predominate.

Pink salmon feed on small crustaceans, zooplankton (tiny floating animals), squid, and small fish. In freshwater, aquatic invertebrates, other fishes, birds, and small mammals prey on pink salmon eggs, alevins, and fry. In the ocean, other fishes (including other Pacific salmon) and coastal seabirds prey on pink salmon fry and juveniles. Marine mammals, sharks, other fishes (such as Pacific halibut), and humpback whales feed on adult pink salmon. In freshwater spawning habitats, bears are predators of adult pink salmon; wolves, river otters, and bald eagles will also occasionally eat pre-spawning adult pinks.



Pink salmon can be distinguished from other Pacific salmon by the large dark oval spots on their back and entire tail fin as well as their general coloring and form. In the sea, pink salmon are steel blue to blue-green on the back, silver on the sides, and white on the belly. Breeding males become dark on the back and red with brownish green blotches on the sides. They also develop a hump on their back, which is why they are often called “humpback” salmon. Breeding females are similar but less distinctly colored.

Pink salmon are the smallest of the Pacific salmon found in North America, weighing between 3.5 and 5 pounds, with an average length of 20 to 25 inches.



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 pink 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. In addition, the NOAA Fisheries Alaska Fisheries Science Center releases annually a forecast of the pink salmon harvest in Southeast Alaska.

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.



Pink salmon are the most abundant Pacific salmon. Pink salmon populations in Alaska were not overfished in 2013, and there have been record catches exceeding several hundred million pounds statewide in the past several years. Farther south, the Puget Sound stock of pink salmon (last assessed in 2013) may not be at record levels, but they’re also not overfished.


Harvesting Pink Salmon

Pink salmon are primarily harvested in net fisheries disclaimer – purse seine, reef net and gillnet. Purse seiners catch salmon by encircling them with a long net and drawing the bottom closed to capture the fish. Gillnetters catch salmon by setting curtain-like nets perpendicular to the migration direction along the coast toward freshwater. The mesh openings on the nets are just large enough to allow males (which are usually larger) to get stuck, or gilled, in the mesh. Pink salmon are also caught incidentally in commercial troll fisheries for chinook and coho salmon. Fishing gear used to harvest salmon does not contact the ocean floor so it doesn’t impact habitat. Bycatch is also low and usually consists of other salmon species.

The Pacific Northwest and Alaska also have very important subsistence and sport fisheries for salmon. Salmon is an important source of spiritual and physical sustenance for Northwest and Alaskan Indian tribes, and they are culturally important to many other residents of these areas. Subsistence and recreational fishermen use a variety of gear to harvest pink 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 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.
  • Specific management measures vary year to year depending on current salmon abundance, and include size limits, season length, quotas, and gear restrictions.
    • The council usually increases harvest limits for pink salmon in odd years when more adults are returning to spawn.
  • Management of pink 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.
    • 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 (FMP) for Salmon Fisheries in the EEZ 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.

Annual Harvest

Almost all the pink salmon harvested in the United States comes from Alaska fisheries. In 2012, commercial harvest of pink salmon totaled 235,301,692 pounds. About 235.3 million pounds of this came from Alaska. Small numbers of pink salmon are also harvested off the West Coast, mainly Washington, especially in odd-numbered years. In 2011, more than 18 million pounds were harvested off Washington and less than 600 pounds were harvested off Oregon. The 2012 harvest off Washington was just over 4,000 pounds.



The 2012 commercial pink salmon harvest was valued at more than $101.1 million.



Salmon are a favorite catch of recreational fishermen. While their relatively small size makes them less popular with sport anglers than other salmon species, pink salmon are excellent fish to catch because they’re aggressive and make a nice, mild-tasting meal. 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.



Pink salmon’s meat is more pale and lacks the orange tint of the other salmon species; true to their name, their meat is pink. Pink salmon is low in oil so it’s generally lean and mild-flavored. It has softer meat than most salmon and has a small flake.

You’ll usually find pink salmon canned, partly because it shows up in huge schools in short periods of time, requiring rapid, high-volume processing. However, pinks are increasingly entering the fresh and frozen markets. Pink salmon eggs are also valuable for use in salmon caviar.



Fresh from late summer to fall; frozen and canned year-round



Pink salmon is low in sodium, 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 116
Protein 19.94 g
Fat, total 3.45 g
Saturated fatty acids, total 0.558 g
Carbohydrate 0 g
Sugars, total 0 g
Fiber, total dietary 0 g
Cholesterol 52 mg
Selenium 44.6 mcg
Sodium 67 mg

Pink Salmon Table of Nutrition



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