Salmon Biology‎ > ‎

Sockeye Salmon

Common Name: Sockeye Salmon, red salmon.
Scientific Name: Oncorhynchus nerka (Walbaum 1792)

How to Identify a Sockeye Salmon:
  • Sockeye Salmon have no spots. 
  • Sockeye Salmon in spawning condition turn a distinct colour with a green head and a red body. 

What do they look like?
In the ocean, the body of a Sockeye Salmon is streamlined and silvery in colour with no spots.  When Sockeye Salmon return to the freshwater to spawn, they change to a distinct colour with a green head and read body.  Spawning Sockeye Salmon also have extended, hooked snouts and barred teeth.  The appearance of males changes more than that of the females while in freshwater.

  Sockeye salmon in spawning condition

How do they live (what is their life-cycle)?
Sockeye Salmon require a lake to complete their life-cycle.  Sockeye Salmon adults return to freshwater rivers to spawn, and often return to the freshwater river where they were "born".  Sockeye Salmon migrate upstream and seek spawning locations in gravel near or in a lake where the water flowing through the gravel never freezes, even in winter.  The eggs and milt (sperm) are deposited in a depression dug in the gravel.  After spawning, the adults die.  The eggs develop over the winter and the fry emerge from the gravel in the spring.  Sockeye Salmon juveniles move to a lake and spend 1-2 years in the lake before going to the ocean.  Sockeye Salmon spend 2-3 years in the ocean before returning to spawn as adults.  Kokanee are populations of Sockeye Salmon that do not migrate to the ocean.   

What do they do?
Much of the biology of salmon in the Arctic is not yet known, and is being discovered with this research.  Sockeye Salmon spawning locations are not known in the Canadian Arctic.

Where do they go?
Sockeye Salmon range from the Russia to Japan in the western Pacific and from Pilgrim River, western Alaska to California in the eastern Pacific.  Sockeye Salmon are extremely rare in the Canadian western Arctic, however they have been found in more places in the Canadian Arctic than any other salmon species.  Spawning populations of Kokanee exist in the Canadian Arctic at Arctic and Thutade lakes, which are head water lakes in the Peace River system.  Stray Sockeye Salmon have been recorded east of Pt. Barrow in Alaska to the Mackenzie River.  Stray Sockeye Salmon have also been reported at several sites in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories.  Sockeye Salmon have been captured in the Mackenzie River from the Delta to Ft Smith, although the Sockeye Salmon captured in Great Slave Lake and in Ft. Smith were likely Kokanee from the the Peace River system.  Sockeye Salmon Spawning has not been recorded in the Canadian Arctic.
Map showing distribution of sockeye salmon captured and turned into Fisheries and Oceans Canada to 2011.  
Map produced by the GIS Department, Aurora Research Institute.