Salmon is the common name for several species of fish of the family Salmonidae. Wild salmon occur naturally in both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Salmon are not native anywhere south of the equator.

Salmon are anadromous: born in fresh water, migrate to the ocean, and return to fresh water to reproduce. Even today, little is understood about their semelparity, the trait that causes them to swim for thousands of miles in the open ocean and then return to their natal waters to spawn and die. Some evidence suggests that salmon may take navigational cues from the earth's magnetic field to guide them home.

Salmon has long been at the heart of the culture and livelihood of many coastal dwellers. For centuries, indigenous people have relied on salmon as the primary source of protein and omega fats in their diet.


Wild salmon population levels are of dire concern in the Atlantic Ocean.  This species is near extinction primarily due to over fishing. The wild Atlantic salmon fishery is commercially dead.

Beginning around 1990 the rates of wild Atlantic salmon mortality at sea more than doubled, and by 2000 the numbers had dropped to critically low levels. Rivers off of the U.S. coast saw runs drop precipitously, and even disappear.
Around the North Atlantic, efforts to restore salmon to their native habitats are underway and there is some progress. Restoration and protection of the habitat itself is key to this process but issues of competition with escaped farmed salmon are also a primary consideration. Farmed salmon who breed with wild Atlantic salmon tend to lessen the genetic diversity of the species leading to lower survival rates.

On the West Coast of Northern America, farmed Atlantic salmon are an invasive threat as well, especially in Alaska and Canada. Extensive efforts are underway to prevent escapes and spread of Atlantic salmon in the Pacific.

Salmon is not native to New Zealand or anywhere in the southern hemisphere.  Salmon in New Zealand were originally imported as ova from the Sacramento River in California in 1901. New Zealand accounts for around half of farmed Chinook salmon production worldwide.  Attempts have been made to farm Sockeye and Atlantic species in New Zealand but were unsuccessful.  Tasmanian salmon is farm raised Atlantic salmon.

Pacific salmon populations have also greatly receded in the waters of California, Oregon and Washington. This is largely attributed to dams, commercial agriculture, pollution and salmon farming in nearby Canada.

Reduction in freshwater base flow and disruption of seasonal flows in rivers, due to dams, diversions, extractions, hydroelectric power generation, irrigation, and reservoirs, inhibit the normal migratory processes for wild salmon.

Loss of suitable freshwater habitat, especially degradation of stream pools and reduction of suitable material for the excavation of redds are also to blame. Historically stream pools were, to a large extent, created by beavers. With the extirpation of the beaver, the nurturing function of these ponds was lost.

In Washington, over 400 dams have been built in the Columbia River Basin. The Columbia River salmon population is now less than 3% of what it was when Lewis and Clark arrived in 1805.
Disease transfer from open net cage salmon farming, especially sea lice is a major threat to wild Pacific salmon. There is strong scientific evidence establishing a direct link between the number of lice-infested wild fish and the presence of farmed salmon cages. It is widely reported that wild Canadian salmon populations on the west coast are being driven to extinction by sea lice from nearby salmon farms.



In Alaska, salmon stocks are thriving. Alaska is the only state in the union whose constitution mandates a sustainable yield principal for fish. Millions of wild Alaskan fish are protected by one of the most stringent and sustainable fisheries management systems in the world.  Alaska is viewed as the global leader in the management of wild fish stocks. The state sets a firm harvest limit that prevents over fishing and preserves the ecosystem.

In 2000, the world's largest fishery, The Alaska Salmon Fishery, was certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) as well managed and sustainable.

The certification recognizes the quality and fundamental conservation strengths of Alaska's salmon management program. To maintain this certification, Alaskan Salmon Fisheries must meet three conditions:

  1. The number of salmon harvested must be relative to the number that can be replenished naturally. These species must be caught ethically as well.
  1. The fishery should be managed to ensure the health and diversity of the marine ecosystem.
  1.  The fishery must adhere to all laws and regulations for responsible and sustainable fishing.

Alaska is committed to escapement goal management in which harvests are restricted to ensure spawning escapement needs are met. Allowing safe passage to the spawning grounds is the highest salmon management priority.

Approximately 95 percent of all commercially caught wild salmon in the U.S. are harvested in Alaska.

Alaska’s human population density is the lowest of any in the United States, and lower than most places in the world. The EPA conducted a comprehensive study of Alaskan Salmon. The results indicate that Alaskan Salmon are cleaner than any that the EPA has ever tested.

Finfish farming, or “aquaculture”, is outlawed in Alaska.


The three best choices for whole, fresh consumption are:

(Oncorhynchus tshawytscha)
Chinook are the largest of all Pacific salmon and one of the most important fish native to the Pacific Ocean. They are prized for their large size, high oil content and excellent table qualities. Chinook average 10 to 50 pounds, but can reach 130 pounds.  Chinook are typically divided into"races" of "spring", "summer", and "fall" and “winter” Chinook. Races are determined by the timing of adult entry into fresh water. Chinook salmon may spend between one to eight years in the ocean before returning to their home rivers to spawn, though the average is three to four years. Chinook may be harvested year around.


(Oncorhynchus kisutch)
Coho have silver sides and dark blue backs, during their ocean phase. Mature coho average 28 inches in length and 7 to 11 pounds. Coho are extremely adaptable and occur in nearly all accessible bodies of fresh water, from large transboundary watersheds to small tributaries. Ocean caught Coho is regarded as excellent table fare. It has a moderate to high amount of fat, which is considered essential when judging taste. Only in spring do Chinook and Sockeye salmon have higher levels of fats in their meat. Historically, the Coho has been a staple in the diet of several indigenous peoples. For several tribes, Coho is a symbol, representing life and sustenance. Coho salmon live in the salt water for one or two years before returning to spawn. In sport fishing, Coho are spectacular fighters and the most acrobatic of the Pacific salmon. Its popularity is due in part to the reckless abandon which it frequently displays chasing bait and lure while in salt water, and the large number of coastal streams it ascends during its spawning runs. It is harvested mid June through mid October.


(Oncorhynchus nerka)
Sockeye are noted for their deep red flesh. They can be as long as 33 inches and weigh 6 to 8 pounds. It has an elongated, torpedo shaped body and a bluntly pointed snout. Although most adult Pacific salmon feed on small fish, shrimp and squid; Sockeye feed on plankton that they filter through gill rakers. It is speculated that this diet is the reason for the striking hue of their flesh, as well as their very low concentration of methyl mercury. The fish spend from one to four years in the salt water, and thus are four to six years old when they return to spawn in summer. Sockeye largely support the commercial fishing industry on the Pacific coast of North America. The largest harvest of sockeye salmon in the world occurs in Alaska where 10 to 30 million fish may be caught each year during a short, intensive fishing period, lasting only a few weeks. Sockeye are harvested mid May through mid September.


Today, wild salmon is most often harvested in the open ocean, near the mouths of rivers.  Ocean caught salmon is generally considered a healthier, tastier fish and is often referred to as “ocean bright”. The skin color of salmon changes from a silvery blue of a fresh run fish from the sea to a darker red after they enter the river. The flesh continues to deteriorate the longer the adult fish remains in freshwater.

Alaska’s fishery managers take advantage of the anadromous behavior of salmon. They observe and count the fish, and ensure that sufficient numbers of adult spawners escape the fishery, and swim up the rivers to spawn.
Salmon also school tightly, and do not mix very much with other species of fishes. This means that commercial salmon fishing has virtually no incidental catch, or bycatch, of non-salmon fishes.
Alaskan salmon are caught only in specific, tightly regulated areas within state waters up to three nautical miles offshore. They are harvested by fishermen, families, and Alaska Natives. Many are owner-operators, meaning that they are independent businesses operating their own boats.


Trollers are small fishing vessels operated by one or two people who fish with a number of lines with baited hooks or lures. Of all the commercial salmon fishing methods, trolling may be the least efficient from the standpoint of intercepting fish. Trollers must search for fish in the open ocean. Troll-caught salmon generally make up less than 10 percent of the total Alaska catch of all species of salmon. If the vessel has freezing capacity, the fish is blast-frozen, dipped in fresh water to form an ice glaze, and placed in the hold.


The greatest number of Alaskan salmon are caught with gillnets. Gillnetting is done from boats (driftnetting), or from shore (setnetting). Either type involves laying a net wall in the water in the path of the fish. Some driftnetting vessels are equipped to carry their fish on ice, or in refrigerated holds. In areas where fishing can be extremely heavy, a driftnetter may deliver fish every few hours to a tendering vessel.


Large numbers of salmon are caught with seines in Alaska. Seining vessels are larger than gillnetters, so that they can operate in stormy fjords and channels. A purse seine is a net that is set in a circle and is drawn closed at the bottom. Salmon’s tendency to swim and jump on the surface reveals the school’s location as it moves through the water. Because salmon migrate in tight schools, it is not unusual for an Alaskan seiner to catch 250 to 1,500 fish with one set.


Consumers often ask, "Is the fish fresh?" If the fish has indeed not been frozen, a better question would be, “When, and where was the fish caught?” The issue of freshness is not about whether or not a fish has been frozen, but about the condition of the fish when it is consumed. Frozen is not contrary to fresh. Rather, spoiled is the opposite of fresh.

However, current public opinion still tends toward the theory that fresh is better than frozen, when in reality, a lot of fresh fish sold today is as much as nine days old. There is a growing change in the market however, as more consumers are beginning to realize that fresh isn't always better, and isn't always fresh.

Seafood quality cannot be improved once it leaves the water, it can only be maintained. Maintaining quality is a function of time, temperature and cleanliness. As time passes and ambient temperature climbs, bacterial growth increases and the quality of the fish diminishes.


With recent technological advances, fishing fleets are able to clean and flash freeze fish virtually moments after they are caught. They are protected from dehydration by a process known as glazing; a covering of water that forms a protective sheet of ice on the outside of the fish. At a temperature of -20F, and in as little as three seconds, the water inside fish tissues is frozen.  Flash freezing minimizes the size of the ice crystals within the flesh, allowing for minimal water absorption and destruction of the tissue. Additionally, flash freezing ensures that all bacteria and parasites are destroyed and minimizes cellular deterioration.

Freshness can be maintained with frozen-at-sea (FAS) fish, because they are then packed and shipped frozen, held in sub-zero temperatures, and not thawed until they reach the consumer. Hence, with frozen fish, when was it caught and how far it has traveled become secondary issues.


The term “fresh” in the seafood industry implies that the fish has never been frozen, from catch to consumer.  Now the questions of when and where it was caught become extremely relevant.  Some fishing vessels are out at sea for several days at a time. A fish may sit in a hold at sea for days before being sold as “fresh”.

Fish being marketed as “fresh” should be bled and cleaned immediately upon being caught, and rapidly chilled on ice. It should disembark the vessel the same day it is caught and immediately be refrigerated and remain in a chilled state until it arrives to the consumer.


Raw salmon may contain Anisakis nematodes, marine parasites that cause Anisakiasis. Before the availability of refrigeration, the Japanese did not customarily consume raw salmon as sushi. Salmon has only recently been served as sashimi and sushi, since the fish has first been frozen, killing parasites prior to consumption.

Cold-cooking and cold-smoking are both excellent alternatives for preparing salmon that has not been frozen, when traditional cooking methods are undesirable.  Cold-cooking is utilizing citric acid to create ceviche. Cold-smoking is curing fish by smoking it at an air temperature not higher than 91°F to avoid coagulating the protein.


In general, whole fish keep better than fillets, and fillets with the skin on keep better than with the skin off.  When the skin is kept in tact, it provides a natural barrier against bacteria, oxidation and dehydration. 

When cooking a fillet, the skin holds the flesh together, and provides a barrier between the pan or grill and the fish to avoid burning, charring and drying of the flesh. Additionally the skin helps the fish retain its precious oils, providing additional nutrition. The skin can easily be removed before serving.

Whole salmon steamed, poached or grilled in the round is even juicier and more flavorful than fillets prepared the same way. It also ensures that you’ll be getting the whole fish and not wasting good meat. The American preference for filleted fish is a wasteful one. Millions of pounds of good meat are trashed from filleting. One whole fish can feed many.


Consuming wild salmon is extremely healthy due to the fish's high protein, high Omega-3 fatty acids, and high vitamin D content. Wild salmon is the most widely available source of DHA and EPA Omega-3s, which are vital to brain function, child development, and reducing the risk of heart disease.

The nutritional value of wild salmon varies based on its fat content and the environment in which it matured. The fat content depends not only on the genetic make-up of each species, but also on its spawning cycle. The longer and more vigorous the freshwater trip, the more fat the fish will carry as it leaves the ocean.


Salmon aquaculture is the major economic contributor to the world production of farmed fin-fish, representing over $1 billion in annual US sales.  As recently as 25 years ago, most salmon in the marketplace came from wild catch. The expansive growth of salmon farming has drastically changed the structure of salmon production.  By 1997, more than half of salmon in the global market were farmed, and this proportion has been steadily increasing. Today, 90% of the fresh salmon consumed in the United States is from farms. In general, farmed salmon outnumber wild salmon 85 to 1.

Salmon is farmed in Chile, Norway, Scotland, Canada, New Zealand, Tasmania and the Faroe Islands. Most of the Atlantic salmon available in the US market is actually grown in the Pacific waters off the Chilean coast. The entry of multinationals, especially those that operate in low cost areas such as Chile have radically changed the salmon markets.  For many years the United States was the largest supplier of wild salmon to Japan, but Chile has surpassed it with its farm-raised product.

According to reports in the Journal of Science, farmed salmon contains high levels of dioxins. PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl) levels may be up to ten times higher in farmed salmon than in wild salmon. According to United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), consuming more than one serving of farmed salmon per month could pose unacceptable cancer risks.

Omega-3 content is lower in farmed salmon, and in a different proportion to what is found naturally. Yet experimentation continues on substituting vegetable proteins for animal proteins in the farmed salmon diet. Unfortunately, this results in even lower levels of Omega-3s. When farmed salmon is fed on a meal that is partially grain, the amount of Omega-3s it contains will be present as ALA (alpha-linolenic acid). The human body can convert ALA Omega 3 into DHA and EPA, but at a very inefficient rate of 2 to 15%.

While aquaculture may be a good alternative for some species of seafood, intensive salmon farming involves crowding thousands of salmon into net cages that pose serious health repercussions to both the fish and the consumer. In Chile, overcrowding of ocean feedlots led to an epidemic of infectious salmon anemia, a disease that killed millions of fish. Disease spreads rapidly in these cramped conditions and sea lice spread to local wild salmon stocks. To rid salmon of the lice, many fish farmers spike their feed with a strong pesticide called emamectin benzoate, which when administered to rats and dogs causes tremors, spinal deterioration and muscle atrophy. The FDA does not test imported salmon for emamectin benzoate.

Another common practice in farming salmon is the use of antibiotics.  Salmon receive more antibiotics than any other livestock by weight, both through feed and through injections.  As much as 30% of this medicated feed goes uneaten, falling through their pens and entering the ocean’s food chain. Farmed salmon are administered the same antibiotics used to treat humans, which contributes to growth of drug-resistant bacteria in humans who consume them. This practice was condemned by the World Health Organization for contributing to worldwide antibiotic resistance.

Salmon flesh is naturally orange to red in color. The natural color of salmon results from carotenoid pigments they retain from eating krill and other tiny shellfish. Farmed salmon fed on prepared diets do not naturally contain these pigments. Because consumers have shown a reluctance to purchase salmon with grey or white flesh, artificial colorants are added to the feed.

According to Alaska Fish and Game, approximately one out of every 100 Atlantic salmon raised on fish farms in Canada escape. Atlantic salmon have been found in over 80 Pacific Canadian rivers and streams. Atlantic salmon that escape into Pacific waters spoil native salmon stocks through colonization, interbreeding, predation, habitat destruction and competition.

The salmon farming industry increases the pressure on an already overstressed wild fish population. It removes massive quantities of fish from the ocean food chain. Depending on the production region, it takes as much as four pounds of small fish like sardines and anchovies to make a single pound of farmed salmon. This process deprives humans of precious protein. Fish feed makers have added soy to their food pellets, reducing their levels of Omega-3s.  Other attempts to shift salmon feed away from fish have raised an entirely new set of concerns. In Canada, farmed salmon are often fed byproducts from poultry processing such as feathers, necks and intestines, and genetically modified soy and canola.

To fatten their livestock, some salmon farmers use bright lights at night to confuse the salmon into thinking it is feeding time. This attracts other fish to the area and disrupts their feeding and migration patterns. Salmon farmers are granted license to kill predators such as sea lions and seals to keep them from eating their fish.

Salmon feedlots introduce high levels of untreated excrement into the ocean. At current levels, Canadian fish farms discharge waste into the ocean roughly equivalent to the raw sewage from a city of 500,000 inhabitants.

This detritus is a major contributor to toxic algae blooms.  They create oxygen-depleted “dead zones” which are in the natural migratory path of wild salmon.  When wild salmon swim through these zones, they have no oxygen and no food supply, and they die.


In order to lay her roe, the female salmon uses her dorsal fin to excavate a shallow depression, called a redd. The redd may contain 3,000 to 14,000 eggs covering 30 square feet. One or more males will approach the female in her redd, depositing his sperm, or milt, over the roe. The female then covers the eggs by disturbing the gravel at the upstream edge of the depression before moving on to make another redd. The female will make as many as 7 redds before her supply of eggs is exhausted. The salmon then die within a few days of spawning.

The eggs will hatch into alevin or sac fry. The fry quickly develop into parr with camouflaging vertical stripes. The parr stay for one to three years in their natal stream before becoming smolts, which are distinguished by their bright silvery color.

Mortality of salmon in the early life stages is usually high due to natural predation as well as human induced changes in habitat, such as siltation, high water temperatures, low oxygen conditions, loss of stream cover, and reductions in river flow.  It is estimated that only 10% of all salmon eggs survive long enough to reach the smelt stage.

Freshwater streams and estuaries provide important habitat for young wild salmon. They feed on terrestrial and aquatic insects, amphipods, and other crustaceans while young, and on other fish when older. Estuaries and their associated wetlands provide vital nursery areas for the salmon prior to their departure to the open ocean. Wetlands not only help buffer the estuary from silt and pollutants, but also provide important feeding and hiding areas.

In the smolt stage, the salmon’s body chemistry changes, allowing them to live in salt water. Smolts spend a portion of their out-migration time in brackish water, where they become accustomed to osmoregulation in the ocean.

The salmon spend about one to five years (depending on the species) in the open ocean where they will become sexually mature. The adult salmon then returns primarily to its natal stream to spawn.

Salmon can make amazing journeys, sometimes moving hundreds of miles upstream against strong currents and rapids to reproduce. Some travel over 900 miles and climb nearly 7,000 feet from the Pacific ocean as they return to spawn.