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Washington state streams and rivers are home to five salmon species: Chinook (also called kings), Chum (also called dogs), Coho (also called silvers), Pink (also called humpies), and Sockeye (also called reds). Salmon are important to the Pacific Northwest. They are vital in our ecosystems and food chain. Salmon fishing is also important for our economy and play an important role in indigenous culture. So let’s learn more about these fascinating creatures!

The life cycle of salmon

Even if you don’t know much about salmon, you likely know something about their incredible lifecycle. Salmon are born in freshwater rivers, lakes, and streams, where they grow into adults. When they’re ready to lay their eggs, they return to the same freshwater spot where they were born.

This means they must swim upriver, against the flow of water. This is no small feat and it can take weeks for the salmon to reach the spot where they’ll spawn and lay eggs. Once the eggs are laid, the salmon die.

Salmon Life Cycle Infographic
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Salmon switch between fresh water and saltwater, which most fish do not do. Salmon are called anadromous, which means they hatch in freshwater streams and rivers, and then migrate out to the saltwater environment of the ocean to feed and grow.

Salmon and the ecosystem

Salmon are a source of food for many animals, from orcas and grizzly bears to osprey and humans. Plus, once salmon die, their carcasses provide vital nutrients for freshwater ecosystems, including the nitrogen and phosphorus that streamside vegetation need. Salmon are so important that they’re considered keystone species, or a species that entire ecosystems depend on. Each part of the salmon’s lifecycle is deeply connected to the surrounding environment.

Salmon Leaping From the Water
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Salmon use their great sense to smell and the earth’s magnetic field to find the river where they were born.

Salmon in tribal culture

Clark County, Washington was the traditional lands of the Chinook and Cowlitz tribes. Additionally, other tribes from across the Pacific Northwest would come to this area to trade. Salmon have been important to these indigenous communities for countless generations. Not only are salmon a primary food source and source of economic benefit, but salmon have long been a part of religious services and cultural stories. Salmon are embedded in cultural identity. Learn more about tribal salmon culture at the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

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Salmon and the economy

The commercial and recreational value of salmon is staggering. In Washington alone, fishing is estimated to support 16,000 jobs and $540 million in personal income. Between commercial fishing activities (including retail sales, wholesaling, and distributing), sport fishing, subsistence fishing, and recreational and tourist activities, salmon are an important part of our economy.

Commercial Salmon Fishing

Threats to salmon

Today, 14 species of salmon and steelhead trout are endangered in Washington. It’s critical to many different groups of people that we support and protect our salmon populations. That is why our StreamTeam devotes countless hours to salmon habitat restoration. There are multiple risk factors for salmon.

Algae on a Pond

Climate change

Salmon are especially sensitive to climate change, as they need cold, clean water at every life stage. Water temperature affects the development of eggs. Even migratory patterns align with optimal river temperatures.

Dry river

Habitat degradation

As the human population continues to grow, more land and water are required for our homes, roads, and other needs. These human needs often compete with the habitat needs of salmon.

Culvert

Fish barriers

In Washington, there are many different barriers, such as culverts, that prevent salmon from reaching their spawning grounds.

Sea Lions Eating Fish

Predators

The food web is complex, and one change can have far-reaching effects. As humans have changed the land, the food web has become more beneficial to predators and less beneficial to salmon. For example, sea lions are also protected and their populations have grown. Now, sea lions are responsible for eating a massive quantity of salmon.

How to help salmon

A great way to help salmon is by restoring habitat. Reintroducing native plants, removing invasive plants, and cleaning litter are all activities that have a huge payoff. These actions will reduce water temperature and improve water quality. Another great way to help salmon? Volunteer with StreamTeam!

Salmon identification

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Chinook salmon

Oncorhynchus tshawytscha

Sometimes called King Salmon, Chinook are the largest of all salmon. They can grow to be five feet long and weigh over 100 pounds! The inside of their mouths are black and they have small round spots across their backs and on their tails.
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Chum Salmon

Oncorhynchus keta

Some considered chum to be the least tasty of the salmon species although the roe is large and often used as sushi garnish. Chum look similar to Sockeye, as they have white mouths and no spots. Chum have large teeth and bands of color on the body. When they spawn, they turn green with purple stripes, and they develop hooked mouths.
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Coho Salmon

Oncorhynchus kisutch

Coho salmon don’t grow as large as Chinooks but fishing enthusiasts know they have a reputation for being fighters. They also have a black mouth but the gums are white. They have spots on the back and upper half of the tails. Coho are very recognizable when they’re spawning because they turn bright red. Males grow a hooked nose, too.
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Pink Salmon

Oncorhynchus gorbuscha

These small salmon (which average 18 inches) only spawn every other year. Their bodies have a pink tinge with dark flecks. The tails have large spots. Their mouths are white inside with black gums. Pink salmon grow a hump on their backs during spawning and their bodies turn gray and white.
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Sockeye salmon

Oncorhynchus nerka

Sockeyes have large golden eyes with white mouths and gums. They don’t have any spots. When they’re spawning, Sockeye develop a hooked nose like Coho and their bodies turn red while their head and tail turn green.

Salmon in the Classroom

Clark Public Utilities is proud to sponsor the Salmon in the Classroom program, which helps teachers raise coho salmon at their schools in classroom aquariums. Students care for the fish, learn all about them, and ultimately release them back into local streams. Learn more about Salmon in the Classroom!

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