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Pink Salmon

[Pink Salmon Ocean and Spawning Stage]

Topics on this page:
General Description
Egg Stage
Alevin Stage
Fry Stage
Smolt Stage
Ocean Stage
Spawning Stage

General Description
The pink salmon, Oncorhynchus gorbuscha,is the smallest and most abundant of the Pacific salmon. It also has the shortest lifespan of all the Pacific salmon, and spends the least amount of time in fresh water. Pink salmon can reach a length of 30 inches and a weight of up to 14 pounds, but a body weight between 2 – 7 pounds is more typical.

In the ocean, pink salmon have steel blue to blue-green backs,silver sides, and a white belly. Large, oval, black spots cover the back, adipose fin and both lobes of the tail. Spawning fish have dark backs with a pinkish wash and green blotches on their sides. Males develop a strongly hooked snout and sharp teeth, and an enormous hump behind the head. This gives the fish its other common name, “humpback salmon”, or “humpy”.

Range And Abundance
The range of the pink salmon extends from La Jolla, California north to the Arctic Ocean, east to the Mackenzie River Delta, and west across Siberia to the Lena River. In the western Pacific Ocean, pink salmon can be found as far south as Korea and Kyushu, Japan.

Life History
Pink salmon may spawn anytime from June to late September depending on location and distance from salt water. Most populations spawn in coastal streams, but some pinks travel over 136 miles up the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers. The female prepares a redd and deposits between 800 – 2,000 eggs that are fertilized by the male. The young hatch out from late December through February. Fry emerge from the gravel in April or early May and almost immediately begin moving downstream to the sea. Smolts spend the first month in estuaries, then move farther offshore. Adult Alaskan pink salmon range from the Bering Sea, out the Aleutian chain, and as far south as the California coast. Adults spend 18 months in the ocean then return to spawn completing their life cycle in just two years.

Due to the two year life cycle, the pink salmon runs in odd and even numbered years are genetically separate. These distinct populations can look slightly different and have much different run sizes.

Economic Importance
Millions of pounds of pink salmon are caught annually, but the quality of the fish is low, resulting in a low price paid to fishermen. Almost all of the pink salmon caught is canned. There is also a small coastal sport fishery for pink salmon.

Cultural Importance Pink salmon are mainly used as food by Alaska Natives living along the coast. They are caught in gill nets and beach seines and dried or canned.

[Salmon Eggs]

Salmon Eggs

The number of eggs produced by a female pink salmon can range from 800 to over 2,000 depending on the size of the fish. The eggs are deposited in a series of gravel nests, called redds. The female makes a redd by swishing her tail in the water to move sediment and fine gravel and create a depression in the stream bed.

Up to 85% of the eggs can be lost before hatching. Low oxygen levels, freezing, water pollution, and predation by fish, insects and birds are all threats at this stage. Excess sediment in the water is also extremely detrimental as it can smother eggs or cover the redd, trapping fish inside.

[Pink Salmon Alevin]

Alevin Stage

A newly hatched salmon is called an alevin. At this stage, it looks like a thread with eyes and has a yolk sack which provides all nutrition for the fish through the winter. Pink salmon alevin remain in the redd until the yolk sac is absorbed. This occurs between April and early June. At this point, they work their way up through the gravel and become free- swimming, feeding fry.

Alevin must have cold, clear, oxygen-rich water to remain healthy. Excessive sediment in the water is one of the greatest dangers to salmon at this stage. It can smother newly-hatched fish or cover the top of the redd, trapping the alevins inside. Aquatic insects and other fish are the primary predators of alevin.

[Pink Salmon Fry]

Fry Stage

Pink salmon fry begin to move downstream to the sea almost as soon as they emerge from the gravel. The tiny fish hide in stream gravels during the day and travel at night. This journey may only take a day for fish that hatched in coastal streams. Fry stay in coastal estuaries for about a month before beginning to move offshore. Many fry are taken by birds, fish and other animals during this period.

[Pink Salmon Smolt]

Smolt Stage

Many physical changes occur in a young salmon to help it make the transition from a freshwater to saltwater existence. One of the primary changes occurs in the gills and kidneys as they change so that they can process salt water.

The young fish remain in estuaries and tidal creeks for several months feeding on plankton and larval tunicates. They gradually move into deeper, saltier water, but remain near shore.

[Pink Salmon Ocean Stage]

Ocean Stage Adult

Pink salmon spend 18 months in salt water. As they grow larger, their diet begins to include small fish as well as various types of plankton. Adult Alaskan pink salmon can be found in most of the northeast Pacific ranging from the Bering Sea, out the Aleutian chain, and as far south as the California coast.

[Pink Salmon Spawning Stage]

Spawning Stage

Pink salmon reach sexual maturity at 2 years of age. They begin to return to spawn anytime from June to late September depending on the location and distance from salt water. Pink salmon have a weaker homing instinct than other salmon species and often stray far from their natal stream to spawn.

The male salmon guards the female from other males while the she rapidly pumps her tail to wash out a depression in the stream gravels. As she deposits her eggs, they are fertilized by the male. The female salmon then moves directly upstream and uses the same tail movements to dig again and cover the eggs.

Text by USFWS staff
Graphics used by permisssion of Harry Heine
Last modified 3 March, 2009

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