Sockeye Salmon

Sockeye Salmon

Oncorhynchus nerka


    Sockeye Salmon, Red Salmon, Blueback Salmon, Redfish, Spring-run Salmon, Summer Sockeye


    U.S. wild caught from Alaska to Oregon



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spawning sockeye salmon

Spawning sockeye salmon in a stream.


Sockeye, or red salmon, is the most valuable U.S. salmon species. They're prized for their orange-red, rich-tasting meat as well as their roe, which is used to make salmon caviar. Almost 100 percent of the sockeye salmon on the market in the United States comes from U.S. fisheries, operating primarily in Alaska. In fact, the largest harvest of sockeye salmon in the world is in the Bristol Bay area of southwestern Alaska. In Alaska, sockeye salmon populations are not overfished. Scientists actively monitor these 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.

Some sockeye salmon is harvested incidentally in fisheries for other salmon species in the Pacific Northwest. Sockeye salmon populations here are variable – out of the seven identified stocks a few have declined to low levels and are currently protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Salmon are extremely sensitive to various 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 the impacts on habitat is just as important as managing harvests. The two are very closely related – the quality and quantity of salmon habitat affect 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 harvest accordingly, and also work to restore and maintain healthy habitat to support these resources and fisheries.

Looking Ahead

While most sockeye salmon production comes from the spawning of wild populations, some runs are developed or enhanced through hatchery programs. Alaska’s salmon hatchery program disclaimer has been operating since the early 1970s, releasing more than 1 billion fish each year to supplement wild salmon stocks and enhance fisheries.



Sockeye salmon are found on both sides of the North Pacific Ocean. In North America, sockeye salmon range from Point Hope in northwestern Alaska to the Klamath River in Oregon. In Asia, they’re 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 sockeye salmon. Sockeye migrate from freshwater habitats to the ocean to further grow, feed, and mature. Adult salmon leave the ocean, enter freshwater, and migrate thousands of miles upstream to spawn, usually in the stream of their birth. Some sockeye salmon are not anadromous and spend their entire lives in freshwater. In the Pacific Northwest, non-anadromous sockeye are known as "kokanee."



Like other Pacific salmon, most sockeye salmon are anadromous – they hatch in freshwater streams and rivers, then after 1-3 years they reach the smolt stage and migrate to the ocean to feed and grow. Sockeye salmon typically mature and return to freshwater after 2-3 years at sea, but some return earlier or stay at sea longer, between 4 and 5 years. Sockeye salmon that return earlier are almost always males and are called "jacks." Sockeye salmon typically spawn in the summer or fall. Females select spawning sites, dig nests (redds) with their tails, and deposit eggs (between 2,000 and 4,500) in the redds. Males swim past the redds and fertilize the eggs. Females cover their eggs with gravel using their tails. The eggs hatch during the winter, and the newly hatched salmon (alevins) remain in the gravel, living off the material stored in their yolk sacs until early spring. They then emerge as fry and spend 1-3 years in freshwater before reaching the smolt stage and migrating out to the ocean, usually in the spring. All sockeye salmon die within a few weeks after spawning. Sockeye salmon sexually mature around the age of 5, which means their life span is about 5 years, although some live longer.

While in freshwater, juvenile sockeye salmon feed mainly upon zooplankton (tiny floating animals), amphipods (small, shrimp-like crustaceans), and insects. In the ocean, sockeye salmon continue to feed on zooplankton but also eat larval and small adult fishes and occasionally squid. Fish (including other salmon) and birds feed on juvenile salmon. Sharks, lampreys, and marine mammals prey on adult salmon in the ocean; bears, eagles, and occasionally wolves feed on sockeye salmon in freshwater.



Sockeye salmon are one of the smaller species of Pacific salmon, measuring 1.5 to 2.5 feet in length and weighing 4-15 pounds. Kokanee (non-anadromous sockeye) rarely exceed 1.2 feet in length. Sea-going sockeye salmon have iridescent silver flanks, a white belly, and a metallic green-blue top, giving them their "blueback" name. Some fine black speckling may occur on the back, but the large spots typical of other Pacific salmon are absent. While in freshwater, juveniles have the same general coloring as immature sockeye salmon in the ocean but are less iridescent. Juveniles also have dark, oval parr marks on their sides. These short parr marks rarely extend below the lateral line.

As sockeye salmon return to their freshwater spawning grounds, their heads turn green and their bodies turn bright red, hence their other common name, “red” salmon. Males develop a humped back and hooked jaws filled with tiny, visible teeth.



Every year, 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 sockeye 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.



As of 2013 there were hundreds of stocks of sockeye salmon in Alaska, and population trends are diverse. Some stocks are in decline, while others are steady or increasing. However, none are listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Of seven different groups of sockeye salmon identified in the Pacific Northwest, one is listed as endangered and one is listed as threatened under the ESA.

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 on the West Coast. Various conservation efforts have been undertaken to restore these salmon populations, including captive-rearing in hatcheries, removal and modification of dams that obstruct salmon migration, restoration of degraded habitat, acquisition of key habitat, and improvements to water quality and instream flow. In 2000, Congress established the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund to support the restoration of salmon species. The funding is approved by Congress annually and distributed by NOAA Fisheries to states and tribes, who use the money to carry out various projects to protect salmon populations as well as rebuild threatened and endangered populations.


Harvesting Sockeye Salmon

Historically, aboriginal peoples considered sockeye salmon an important food source, eating them fresh or drying them for winter use. Today, sockeye salmon remain an important spiritual icon and source of food for Northwest and Alaskan tribes, support one of the most important commercial fisheries on the Pacific coast of North America, and are increasingly sought after in recreational fisheries.

Sockeye salmon are primarily harvested commercially in net fisheries disclaimer – gillnet fisheries take the greatest number, but sockeye salmon are also an important catch for purse seine fisheries. Gillnetters catch salmon by setting curtain-like nets perpendicular to the sockeyes’ trajectory as they migrate 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. Purse seiners catch salmon by encircling them with a long net and drawing the bottom closed to capture the fish. Sockeye 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.



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

Current management:

West Coast: Pacific Coast Salmon Plan

  • All Pacific salmon species fall under the jurisdiction of this plan, although currently it contains fishery management objectives only for Chinook, coho, pink, and any salmon species listed under the Endangered Species Act.
    • There are no directed fisheries for sockeye salmon in federal waters in this area, and sockeye salmon are only occasionally caught in the fisheries managed by the Council.

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 allows management to remain 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 needed to meet escapement goals, allowed harvests 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 in 1985. They created the Pacific Salmon Commission 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

In 2012, U.S. fishermen harvested more than 212.8 million pounds of sockeye salmon. Nearly 211.9 million pounds came from Alaska, more than 861,000 pounds came from Washington, and the remainder of the landings came from Oregon.



Sockeye salmon is the most valuable U.S. salmon species, both for its roe and its rich orange-red meat. The roe is processed while fresh and marketed primarily in Japan. Sockeye salmon remain the preferred species for canning due to the rich orange-red color of their flesh. Today, however, more than half of the sockeye salmon catch is sold fresh or frozen rather than canned. Canned sockeye salmon is marketed primarily in the United Kingdom and the United States, while most frozen sockeye salmon is purchased by Japan. The 2010 commercial harvest was worth $278.6 million.

The 2012 commercial harvest (including Alaska, Oregon and Washington) was worth $209.9 million. The Alaska commercial portion was worth more than $208.3 million.



Salmon are a favorite catch of recreational fishermen. To ensure recreational fisheries are sustainable, West Coast anglers are only allowed to keep a certain amount 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.



Sockeye salmon have the reddest flesh of the wild salmon species. The raw meat has a bright-red or orange-red color. Cooked meat remains red. Sockeye salmon meat is firm and fatty, making it rich in omega-3 fatty acids. This also gives the meat a rich flavor, which is said to rival the flavor of chinook (king) salmon. Sockeye salmon is sold fresh, frozen, canned, and smoked.



Fresh mainly in the summer and early fall, though the timing varies by area and fishery; frozen, canned, and smoked sockeye salmon is available year-round.



Sockeye 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 168
Protein 21.3 g
Fat, total 8.56 g
Saturated fatty acids, total 1.495 g
Carbohydrate 0 g
Sugars, total 0 g
Fiber, total dietary 0 g
Cholesterol 62 mg
Selenium 33.7 mcg
Sodium 47 mg

Sockeye Salmon Table of Nutrition