National Geographic Society

  • Connect:

Sockeye Salmon

Oncorhynchus nerka

Photo: Sockeye salmon en route to spawning grounds

Photo: Sockeye salmon en route to spawning grounds (View larger version)

Photograph by Peter Essick

Published

The name sockeye comes from a poor attempt to translate the word suk-kegh from British Columbia's native Coast Salish language. Suk-kegh means red fish.

The sockeye, also called red or blueback salmon, is among the smaller of the seven Pacific salmon species, but their succulent, bright-orange meat is prized above all others. They range in size from 24 to 33 inches (60 to 84 centimeters) in length and weigh between 5 and 15 pounds (2.3 to 7 kilograms).

Like all other Pacific salmon, they are born in fresh water. However, sockeye require a lake nearby to rear in. Once hatched, juvenile sockeyes will stay in their natal habitat for up to three years, more than any other salmon. They then journey out to sea, where they grow rapidly, feeding mainly on zooplankton. They stay in the ocean for one to four years.

Sea-going sockeyes have silver flanks with black speckles and a bluish top, giving them their "blueback" name. However, as they return upriver to their spawning grounds, their bodies turn bright red and their heads take on a greenish color. Breeding-age males have a distinctive look, developing a humped back and hooked jaws filled with tiny, easily visible teeth. Males and females both die within a few weeks after spawning.

Sockeyes are the third most abundant of the species of Pacific salmons and are a keystone in the North American commercial fisheries.

0 comments