Throughout the Northwest, six species of Chinook salmon are protected under the Endangered Species Act. The Northwest Region works with its partners to protect, conserve, and recover Chinook by addressing the threats these animals face and by restoring the habitat on which they depend.
Chinook, a.k.a. king salmon, are the most highly prized salmon in the culinary world. They’re the largest Pacific salmon, and the most expensive. Chinook salmon stocks originate in rivers from central California to northwest Alaska and are harvested in ocean and river habitats. The status of chinook populations in California and the Pacific Northwest varies; some populations are healthy while others are listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Chinook salmon stocks in Alaska are generally healthy, and none are listed under the ESA. U.S. fisheries only target healthy stocks of chinook salmon. Scientists actively monitor salmon populations and fisheries, and managers adjust regulations for these fisheries every year, and often in-season as well, according to changes in salmon abundance and other conservation considerations.
Salmon live in the ocean but are born and spawn in freshwater rivers and streams. They’re extremely sensitive to a variety of natural and man-made stressors, on land as well as in the ocean. Changes in ocean and climatic conditions, habitat loss from the construction of dams and urban development, and degraded water quality from agricultural and logging practices are just a few of the factors that have taken a toll on wild salmon populations, especially in the Pacific Northwest. With salmon, managing impacts to habitat is just as important as managing harvests. The two are very closely related – the quality and quantity of salmon habitat impact the abundance of salmon, and the abundance of salmon determines how much salmon may be harvested by commercial, recreational, and subsistence fishermen. NOAA Fisheries and partners constantly monitor salmon abundance and manage harvests accordingly, and also work to restore and maintain healthy habitat to support these resources and fisheries.
LOCATION & HABITAT
In North America, chinook salmon range from the Monterey Bay area of California to the Chukchi Sea area of Alaska. On the Asian coast, chinook salmon are found from the Anadyr River area of Siberia southward to Hokkaido, Japan.
Salmon are born in freshwater. Freshwater streams, estuaries, and associated wetlands provide vital nursery grounds for chinook salmon. Chinook migrate from freshwater habitats to the ocean to further grow, feed, and mature. Adult salmon leave the ocean, enter freshwater, and migrate upstream to spawn, usually in the stream of their birth.
Like all Pacific salmon, chinook are anadromous – they hatch in freshwater streams and rivers, then after a year or so, they reach the smolt stage and migrate to the ocean. They spend a few years feeding in the ocean, then return to their natal streams or rivers to spawn, generally in summer or early fall. Several stocks return to freshwater during a given season (a seasonal run). Chinook are typically 3 or 4 years old when they return to spawn, their age varies by area. Chinook dig out gravel nests (redds) on stream bottoms where they lay their eggs. All chinook salmon die after spawning. Chinook salmon sexually mature between the ages of 2 and 7 (which means their life span is between 2 and 7 years).
Young chinook salmon feed on terrestrial and aquatic insects, amphipods, and other crustaceans. Older chinook primarily feed on other fish. Fish (such as whiting and mackerel) and birds eat juvenile chinook salmon. Marine mammals, such as orcas and sea lions, and sharks eat adult salmon. Salmon are also primary prey for Southern Resident killer whales, an endangered species.
Salmon carcasses disclaimer – as well as their eggs, embryos, alevins, and fry – transport nutrients from the ocean to stream and lake ecosystems. Carcasses have been shown to improve newly hatched salmon growth and survival by contributing nitrogen and phosphorous compounds to streams. Terrestrial animals and aquatic and riparian plants also take up nutrients from salmon carcasses.
Chinook salmon are the largest of the Pacific salmon, hence the name “king salmon.” They can grow as long as 4.9 feet and up to 129 pounds, but typical length and weight are about 3 feet and 30 pounds. When they’re in the ocean, chinook salmon are blue-green on the back and top of the head with silvery sides and white bellies. They have black spots on the upper half of the body and both lobes of the tail fin. Chinook salmon also have a black pigment along the gum line, thus the nickname "blackmouth."
In freshwater, when they are about to spawn, chinook change to olive brown, red, or purplish; this color change is particularly evident in males. Spawning adult males (4-7 years) can be distinguished by their "ridgeback" condition and their hooked upper jaw. Females can be distinguished by a torpedo-shaped body, robust mid-section, and blunt nose. Juveniles in freshwater (fry) have well-developed parr marks on their sides (the pattern of vertical bars and spots useful for camouflage). Before juveniles migrate to the sea, they lose their parr marks and gain the dark back and light belly characteristic of fish living in open water. Their gills and kidneys also begin to change so they can process salt water.
Scientists assess the abundance of salmon by monitoring and measuring “spawning escapement” (the number of salmon that “escape” the fishery and return to their natal streams to spawn) and their productivity. They also monitor catch throughout the fishing season. Using the escapement measurements and harvest estimates, fisheries scientists at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game regularly report on the status of chinook salmon stocks and fisheries. Scientists also prepare a “Salmon Forecast” disclaimer for Alaska salmon stocks and fisheries. The report reviews the previous season and provides forecasts and harvest projections for the upcoming season.
Every year, the Pacific Fishery Management Council’s Salmon Technical Team prepares an annual postseason review of ocean salmon fisheries off the coasts of Washington, Oregon, and California to assess salmon fishery management performance and stock status. This “Salmon Review” includes information on regulations, catch and effort estimates, spawning escapement, and economics; it is used to inform management of the next season’s fishery.
The status of chinook stocks in California and the Pacific Northwest varies; although some stocks are listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), several other stocks in this range are considered healthy. Currently, two chinook salmon populations are listed as endangered, seven are listed as threatened, and one is listed as a species of concern.
In Alaska, chinook salmon stocks are generally healthy, and none are listed under the ESA.
In 2007, scientists at NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center and the University of Washington published a study showing how global warming could result in a 20 to 40 percent decline in chinook salmon populations by 2050 in the Snohomish River Basin. They found that habitat deterioration associated with climate change is likely to make salmon recovery more difficult in the Pacific Northwest, especially in relatively pristine, higher elevation river basins.
HARVESTING CHINOOK SALMON
Chinook salmon are harvested in commercial, recreational, and subsistence fisheries in the ocean and inland waters of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska using a variety of gear types. Commercial troll vessels catch salmon by “trolling” their lines with bait or lures through groups of feeding fish. To retrieve hooked fish, the lines are wound on spools by hand or hydraulically, and the fish are gaffed when alongside the vessel. The troll fishery produces low-volume, high-quality product. Troll gear does not contact the ocean floor so it doesn’t impact habitat. Bycatch is also low and usually consists of other salmon species.
Chinook are also harvested in commercial seine and gillnet fisheries (described here disclaimer), both in fisheries targeting healthy stocks of chinook and as bycatch in fisheries targeting other species of salmon.
Both the Pacific Northwest and Alaska also have important subsistence and recreational fisheries for salmon. Salmon is an important source of spiritual and physical sustenance for Northwest and Alaskan Indian tribes, and is culturally important to many other residents of these areas. Subsistence and recreational fishermen use a variety of gear to harvest chinook salmon.
Who’s in charge? NOAA Fisheries, the Pacific and North Pacific Fishery Management Councils, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game disclaimer
West Coast: Pacific Coast Salmon Fishery Management Plan
Every year, the Council reviews reports of the previous fishing season and current estimates of salmon abundance. Using this information, they make recommendations for management of the upcoming fishing season. Their general goal is to allow fishermen to harvest the maximum amount of salmon that will support the fishery while preventing overharvest of the resource and ensuring that salmon populations with low abundance can rebuild to a healthy level. Specific management measures vary year to year depending on current salmon abundance and include size limits, season length, quotas, and gear restrictions. Management of chinook salmon must also comply with laws such as the Endangered Species Act. Final recommendations are implemented by NOAA Fisheries on May 1 each year. Check here for the current season’s management recommendations. State and tribal managers use Council management recommendations to shape their policies for inland fisheries, to ensure that conservation objectives are met.
Alaska: Fishery Management Plan for Salmon Fisheries in the Exclusive Economic Zone off the Coast of Alaska
All management of the salmon fisheries in federal waters is deferred to the State of Alaska disclaimer, which is also responsible for managing the commercial, recreational, and subsistence fisheries for salmon in state waters. This ensures that management is consistent throughout salmon’s range. Managers regulate the fishery based on “escapement goals” to ensure harvests are sustainable – they want enough salmon to be able to escape the fishery and return to freshwater to spawn and replenish the population.
Salmon fishery management largely relies on in-season assessment of how many salmon return to freshwater to spawn. Managers set harvest levels based on these returns – when abundance is high and the number of fish returning is much higher than that needed to meet escapement goals, harvest levels are set higher. In years of low abundance, harvest levels are lowered. During the season, scientists monitor catch and escapement, comparing current returns with those from previous years, to keep an eye on abundance and actively manage the fishery.
International: Adult salmon returning to Washington migrate through both U.S. and Canadian waters and are harvested by fishermen from both countries. To coordinate management, research, and enhancement of these shared Pacific salmon stocks, the United States and Canada signed the Pacific Salmon Treaty disclaimer in 1985. They created the Pacific Salmon Commission disclaimer to implement the treaty and provide regulatory advice and recommendations to U.S. and Canadian management agencies that regulate salmon fisheries. In 2009, the two countries ratified a new abundance-based management agreement, extending this bilateral management process through 2018. This agreement included reductions in harvest rates of chinook in mixed-stock marine fisheries off the west coast of Vancouver Island and in Southeast Alaska.
U.S. commercial fishermen harvested over 13.3 million pounds of chinook salmon in 2010, up more than 3.4 million pounds (34 percent) from 2009. (The abundance of some key contributing stocks increased in 2010, easing harvest restrictions of previous years when abundance was lower.) The majority of the harvest came from Alaska and Washington, with 5.4 and 5.3 million pounds, respectively. Oregon fishermen harvested 2.2 million pounds, and the rest came from California.
Most of the chinook in the U.S. market comes from U.S. fisheries (mainly off Alaska, Washington, and Oregon, with a small amount from California) and Canadian fisheries.
Chinook salmon are a favorite catch of recreational fishermen. In fact, they might be the most highly prized sport fish in Alaska. To ensure recreational fisheries are sustainable, West Coast anglers are only allowed to keep a certain number of salmon per fishing trip. In Alaska, regulations vary by area and individual fisheries. Recreational fisheries in high-use areas (Cook Inlet, Southeast Alaska, Copper River) are regulated through management plans that allocate fish between competing commercial and recreational fishermen.
Chinook (King) Salmon
Other names: king, tyee, blackmouth (immature)
Average size: 10-15 lbs, up to 135 lbs
Chinook salmon are the largest of the Pacific salmon, with some individuals growing to more than 100 pounds. These huge fish are rare, as most mature chinook are under 50 pounds.
Most chinook spawn in large rivers such as the Columbia and Snake, although they will also use smaller streams with sufficient water flow. They tend to spawn in the mainstem of streams, where the water flow is high. Because of their size they are able to spawn in larger gravel than most other salmon.
Chinook spawn on both sides of the Cascade Range, and some fish travel hundreds of miles upstream before they reach their spawning grounds. Because of the distance, these fish enter streams early and comprise the spring and summer runs. Fall runs spawn closer to the ocean and more often use small coastal streams. All chinook reach their spawning grounds by fall, in time to spawn.
Chinook fry rear in freshwater from three months to a year, depending on the race of chinook and the location. Spring chinook tend to stay in streams for a year; fish in northern areas, where the streams are less productive and growth is slower, also tend to stay longer. Rearing chinook fry use mainstems and their tributaries.
Alevin - The lifestage of a salmonid between egg and fry. An alevin looks like a fish with a huge pot belly, which is the remaining egg sac. Alevin remain protected in the gravel riverbed, obtaining nutrition from the egg sac until they are large enough to fend for themselves in the stream.
Anadromous - Fish that live part or the majority of their lives in saltwater, but return to freshwater to spawn.
Emergence - The act of salmon fry leaving the gravel nest.
Fry - A juvenile salmonid that has absorbed its egg sac and is rearing in the stream; the stage of development between an alevin and a parr.
Kype - The hooked jaw many male salmon develop during spawning.
Parr - Also known as fingerling. A large juvenile salmonid, one between a fry and a smolt.
Smolt - A juvenile salmonid which has reared in-stream and is preparing to enter the ocean. Smolts exchange the spotted camouflage of the stream for the chrome of the ocean.
Substrate - The material which comprises a stream bottom.
Chinook Salmon Return To The Boise River, But Not On Their Own
By ASSOCIATED PRESS
Credit Roger Tabor / USFWS
Chinook salmon haven't returned naturally to the Boise River for decades, since dams downstream on the Snake River blocked their passage.
But the Idaho Department of Fish and Game will be stocking 300 to 400 Chinook jacks in the Boise River Monday.
The jack salmon are young Chinooks that return to fresh water earlier than other spawning adults.
They're about half the size of typical Chinooks that return to rivers.
These ones will be released from the Glenwood Bridge to Barber Park, at sites Fish and Game commonly uses to release another of the Boise River's fish, the steelhead, whose historical spawning journeys were also interrupted by dams.
The jack salmon being released in the Boise River are among those not required for broodstock at the Rapid River Hatchery downstream.