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Sockeye Salmon

Oncorhynchus nerka
Sockeye salmon are also known as red salmon.

Description:  Sockeye salmon are commonly known as red salmon due to the brilliant reddening (especially in males) of the body that occurs when these fish return to the freshwater to spawn.  During this transformation Sockeye salmon exhibit bright red bodies, dull green heads, a pronounced kype (hooked jaw), and a small dorsal hump (which is much less pronounced than in male pink salmon).  Before developing their spawning colors, adults are of a greenish-blue hue with fine black speckles on their backs.  They can reach up to a length of 33 inches and weigh up to 15 pounds, although on average they typically weigh between 3.5 and 8 pounds.

Range: Sacramento River, California to Hokkaido, Japan; some populations along the Beaufort Sea, Chukchi Sea, Bering Straits, and the Sea of Okhotsk.


Abundance: Third in abundance after pink and chum.
Life History:  Sockeye salmon have the greatest range of life history patterns of all the salmon species; making use of both rivers and lakes unlike the other salmonids.  There are 3 types of sockeye salmon stocks, grouped by the spawning and rearing habitat they utilize as well as their life cycle behavior.  Lacustrine (lake-oriented) and riverine (river-oriented) stocks are anadromous, which means that they are born and spawn in the freshwater, but live out their adult lives in the ocean.  The other type of sockeye stock is called kokanee (or little redfish).  Kokanee remain in the freshwater throughout their entire lifecycle.  Some are descendents from landlocked sockeye salmon, while others are “residuals” who opted never to migrate out to sea.  Kokanee are also smaller in size than the two stocks of anadromous sockeye.  This species spawns earlier than most other salmon, usually entering the freshwater in the summer months.  Lacustrine sockeye typically spawn in rivers above, below, and sometimes even in lakes; allowing the fry to develop in the lake ecosystem for 1 to 2 years.  Riverine populations spawn and rear in large river systems rather than lakes.  These anadromous populations typically spend 2 or 3 years at sea before returning to the freshwater to spawn.

Spawning Season:  August to November. 

Habitat Requirements: Sockeye differ from other Pacific salmon in their use of lake environments for spawning and juvenile rearing.  Although most sockeye spawn in rivers and streams, some spawn in lakes, using beach or bottom areas where groundwater wells up through the gravel.

In Our Local Watersheds:  There are two very small distinct riverine sockeye salmon populations present in the Nooksack River; one in the North/Middle Fork and one in the South ForkThese fish are more closely related to riverine stocks of sockeye salmon to the north (like the Fraser River sockeye salmon) than to local lacustrine stocks (like the Baker Lake sockeye salmon).  Sockeye in our area can begin migration into the Nooksack River as early as spring, although most spawning occurs in August and September. 

Did You Know? Sockeye salmon get their brilliant red spawning color in part from eating a rich diet of large zooplankton (crustaceans and fish larvae), similar to the flamingo.

For more information on Whatcom County's sockeye salmon click here.

For more information on Whatcom County's kokanee salmon click here.