Salmon run

Grizzly bear fishes for a salmon during a salmon run. (Photo by Dmitry Azovtsev.)

The salmon run is the time when salmon, which have migrated from the ocean, swim to the upper reaches of rivers where they spawn on gravel beds. After spawning, all Pacific salmon and most Atlantic salmon die, and the salmon life cycle starts over again. The annual run can be a major event for grizzly bears, bald eagles and sport fishermen. Most salmon species migrate during the fall (September through November). [1]

Salmon spend their early life in rivers, and then swim out to sea where they live their adult lives and gain most of their body mass. When they have matured, they return to the rivers to spawn. Usually they return with uncanny precision to the natal river where they were born, and even to the very spawning ground of their birth. It is thought that, when they are in the ocean, they use magnetoception to locate the general position of their natal river, and once close to the river, that they use their sense of smell to home in on the river entrance and even their natal spawning ground.

In northwest America, salmon is a keystone species, which means the impact they have on other life is greater than would be expected in relation to their biomass. The death of the salmon has important consequences, since it means significant nutrients in their carcasses, rich in nitrogen, sulfur, carbon and phosphorus, are transferred from the ocean to terrestrial wildlife such as bears and riparian woodlands adjacent to the rivers. This has knock-on effects not only for the next generation of salmon, but to every species living in the riparian zones the salmon reach. [2] The nutrients can also be washed downstream into estuaries where they accumulate and provide further support for estuarine breeding birds.


Adult ocean phase and spawning phase pink salmon (male)
Sac fry remain in the gravel habitat of their redd (nest) until their yolk sac, or "lunch box" is depleted
After depleting their yolk sac nutrients, the young salmon emerge from the gravel habitat as parr to feed

Most salmon are anadromous, a term which comes from the Greek anadromos, meaning "running upward". [3] Anadromous fish grow up mostly in the saltwater in oceans. When they have matured they migrate or "run up" freshwater rivers to spawn in what is called the salmon run. [4]

Anadromous salmon are Northern Hemisphere fish that spend their ocean phase in either the Atlantic Ocean or the Pacific Ocean. They do not thrive in warm water. There is only one species of salmon found in the Atlantic, commonly called the Atlantic salmon. These salmon run up rivers on both sides of the ocean. Seven different species of salmon inhabit the Pacific (see table), and these are collectively referred to as Pacific salmon. Five of these species run up rivers on both sides of the Pacific, but two species are found only on the Asian side. [5] In the early 19th century, Chinook salmon were successfully established in the Southern Hemisphere, far from their native range, in New Zealand rivers. Attempts to establish anadromous salmon elsewhere have not succeeded. [6]

Species of anadromous salmon
Oceans Coasts Species [5] Maximum Comment
length weight life span
North Atlantic Both sides Atlantic salmon [7] 150 cm 46.8 kg 13 years
North Pacific Both sides Chinook salmon [8] 150 cm 61.4 kg 9 years Also established in New Zealand
Chum salmon [9] 100 cm 15.9 kg 7 years
Coho salmon [10] 108 cm 15.2 kg 5 years
Pink salmon [11] 76 cm 6.8 kg 3 years
Sockeye salmon [12] 84 cm 7.7 kg 8 years
Asian side Masu salmon [13] 79 cm 10.0 kg
Biwa salmon [14] 44 cm 1.3 kg

The life cycle of an anadromous salmon begins and, if it survives the full course of its natural life, usually ends in a gravel bed in the upper reaches of a stream or river. These are the salmon spawning grounds where salmon eggs are deposited, for safety, in the gravel. The salmon spawning grounds are also the salmon nurseries, providing a more protected environment than the ocean usually offers. After 2 to 6 months the eggs hatch into tiny larvae called sac fry or alevin. The alevin have a sac containing the remainder of the yolk, and they stay hidden in the gravel while they feed on the yolk. When the yolk has gone they must find food for themselves, so they leave the protection of the gravel and start feeding on plankton. At this point the baby salmon are called fry. At the end of the summer the fry develop into juvenile fish called parr. Parr feed on small invertebrates and are camouflaged with a pattern of spots and vertical bars. They remain in this stage for up to three years. [15] [16]

As they approach the time when they are ready to migrate out to the sea the parr lose their camouflage bars and undergo a process of physiological changes which allows them to survive the shift from freshwater to saltwater. At this point salmon are called smolt. Smolt spend time in the brackish waters of the river estuary while their body chemistry adjusts their osmoregulation to cope with the higher salt levels they will encounter in the ocean. [17] Smolt also grow the silvery scales which visually confuse ocean predators. When they have matured sufficiently in late spring, and are about 15 to 20 centimetres long, the smolt swim out of the rivers and into the sea. There they spend their first year as a post-smolt. Post-smolt form schools with other post-smolt, and set off to find deep-sea feeding grounds. They then spend up to four more years as adult ocean salmon while their full swimming and reproductive capacity develops. [15] [16] [17]

Then, in one of the animal kingdom's more extreme migrations, the salmon return from the saltwater ocean back to a freshwater river to spawn afresh. [18]