Photo: Sockeye salmon en route to spawning grounds

Sockeye salmon are known for their bright red skin, but are actually blue while in the ocean. Only when they return to freshwater to spawn do they turn red.

Photograph by Peter Essick

Map

Map: Sockeye salmon range

Sockeye Salmon Range

Fast Facts

Type:
Fish
Diet:
Omnivore
Average life span in the wild:
3 to 5 years
Size:
Up to 33 in (84 cm)
Weight:
5 to 15 lbs (2.3 to 7 kg)
Group name:
Bind or run
Did you know?
Sockeye salmon meat gets its color from the orange krill they eat while in the ocean.
Size relative to a 6-ft (2-m) man:
Illustration: Salmon compared with adult man

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.

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