Chinook Salmon

Spring Chinook Salmon.  Photo courtesy Michael Humling, US Fish & Wildlife Service

About The Species

U.S. wild-caught Chinook salmon is a smart seafood choice because it is sustainably managed and responsibly harvested under U.S. regulations.

However, some Chinook salmon are also protected under the Endangered Species Act. Learn more about protected Chinook salmon.

Population Level

There are numerous stocks of Chinook salmon. Some stocks are above target population levels, while others are below.

Fishing Status

Managers set fishing rates to avoid jeopardizing the survival and recovery of Chinook salmon stocks that are below their target levels.

Habitat Impact

Fishing gear used to catch Chinook salmon rarely contacts the ocean floor and has little impact on habitat.

Bycatch

Regulations are in place to minimize bycatch.

Status

  • Alaska:
  • Pacific Northwest:
    • The status of Chinook stocks in California and the Pacific Northwest varies.
    • Some stocks are in decline, while others are steady or increasing.
    • As of 2013, two Chinook salmon populations are listed as endangered, and seven are listed as threatened under the ESA.
    • Review of 2014 Ocean Salmon Fisheries
  • Populations are affected by:
    • Changes in ocean and climatic conditions.
    • Habitat loss from dam construction and urban development.
    • Degraded water quality from agricultural and logging practices.
  • Population conservation efforts include:
    • Captive-rearing in hatcheries.
    • Removal and modification of dams that obstruct salmon migration.
    • Restoration of degraded habitat.
    • Acquisition of key habitat.
    • Improvements to water quality and instream flow.
  • The Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund supports the restoration of salmon species.
Appearance
  • 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 on 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 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.
Behavior and Diet
  • Chinook salmon are anadromous—they hatch in freshwater streams and rivers then migrate out to the saltwater environment of the ocean to feed and grow.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Chinook salmon sexually mature between the ages of 2 and 7 but are typically 3 or 4 years old when they return to spawn.
  • Chinook dig out gravel nests (redds) on stream bottoms where they lay their eggs.
  • All Chinook salmon die after spawning.
  • 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.
  • After salmon spawn and die, salmon carcasses are a valuable source of energy and nutrients to the river ecosystem. Carcasses have been shown to improve newly hatched salmon growth and survival by contributing nitrogen and phosphorous compounds to streams.
Location Description

In North America, Chinook salmon range from the Monterey Bay area of California to the Chukchi Sea area of Alaska. 

Management
  • NOAA Fisheries and the Pacific Fishery Management Council manage Chinook salmon on the West Coast.
  • Managed under the Pacific Coast Salmon 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.
    • Specific management measures vary year to year depending on current salmon abundance, and include size limits, season length, quotas, and gear restrictions. The council usually increases harvest limits for Chinook salmon in odd years when more adults are returning to spawn.
    • Management of Chinook salmon must also comply with laws such as the Endangered Species Act.
    • Final recommendations are implemented by NOAA Fisheries. Check here for the current season’s management. State and tribal managers use council management recommendations to shape their policies for inland fisheries, to ensure that conservation objectives are met.
  • NOAA Fisheries and the North Pacific Fishery Management Council manage Chinook salmon in Alaska. 
  • Managed under the Fishery Management Plan for Salmon Fisheries in the EEZ off the Coast of Alaska:
    • All management of the salmon fisheries in federal waters is deferred to the State of Alaska, 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.
  • Off the West Coast and in Alaska, the Pacific Salmon Treaty and the Pacific Salmon Commission help coordinate management, research, and enhancement of shared U.S. and international salmon stocks, including Chinook.