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What is a Salmon?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated May 21, 2024
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Salmon are members of the Salmonidae family of fishes, distinguished by their pale pink flesh, which is popular among humans. They are anadromous fish, reproducing and hatching in fresh water but entering the sea as adults. According to folklore, salmon will return to the same locations year after year to spawn. Like their relatives the trout, these fish are very sensitive to environmental changes and are often used as an indicator species.

In the west, salmon have often contended with farmers for water rights, with drought conditions resulting in a high diversion of available water to agriculture. Conservationists argue that the fish needs habitat just as humans need food, and have tried to protect it to some extent with water regulation, tight fishery monitoring, and the introduction of salmon to new environments. They have been successfully farmed, and farmed fish may be a better ecological alternative in some cases to wild caught salmon.

Salmon are found in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, with a record weight of 100 pounds (45 kilograms) being recorded for one epic Atlantic salmon. Pacific fish tend to be smaller on average, although both types will range far afield when they reach the sea. Salmon will travel up and down stream several times to spawn, return to sea, and repeat the process during their lifetimes. They have been part of the human diet for centuries, and play a powerful role in the mythology of many western Native American nations.

These fish look much like their relatives the trout, with dark mottled upper bodies and creamy lower bodies, a small adipose fin between the tail and dorsal fins, and a pronounced, forward carried mouth. Unlike trout, salmon have 12 or more rays on their anal fins, and often have dark or black mouths. The meat is rich in omega 3 acids, and prized by many consumers who favor its mild flavor and rich pink flavor. As a result, many are struggling with extinction due to overfishing, despite careful fisheries management.

Because salmon tend to run along the same river throughout their lifetime, biologists frequently refer to groups of fish by the river they inhabit and the name of the species, as is the case in Sacramento River Chinook, for example. There are five recognized species: chinook, coho, chum, sockeye, and pink. All are commercially fished, and most are viewed as threatened species due to their shrinking habitats. Wild salmon used to be highly genetically diverse, with a wide range of varieties emerging from assorted rivers along the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. However, with the pressure of commercial fisheries, the genetic diversity is dwindling.

It is hoped that increased regulation and control will allow salmon stocks to recover, and many states have launched vigorous public campaigns to educate consumers about the fish and the legal repercussions of taking the wrong type.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is a salmon?

Salmon are anadromous fish, meaning they are born in freshwater, migrate to the ocean, and then return to freshwater to reproduce. They belong to the family Salmonidae, which also includes trout and char. Salmon are known for their distinct life cycle and their ability to navigate back to their birthplace to spawn, a phenomenon known as homing.

How many species of salmon exist?

There are several species of salmon, with the most commonly known being the Pacific salmon and Atlantic salmon. The Pacific salmon includes five species: Chinook (king), Coho (silver), Sockeye (red), Pink (humpback), and Chum (dog). The Atlantic salmon is the only species found in the Atlantic Ocean, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

Why do salmon migrate?

Salmon migrate to take advantage of the rich feeding grounds in the ocean, which allows them to grow large and accumulate energy reserves. When they reach maturity, they return to their natal freshwater streams and rivers to spawn. This migration is driven by instinct and ensures the continuation of their species, as freshwater offers a safer environment for their eggs and fry.

What is the significance of salmon to ecosystems and humans?

Salmon play a crucial role in their ecosystems as a keystone species, transferring nutrients from the ocean to freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems. For humans, salmon are economically significant, supporting commercial and recreational fisheries, and culturally important to indigenous peoples. They are also a source of healthy protein rich in omega-3 fatty acids, according to the American Heart Association.

How do salmon find their way back to their birthplace?

Salmon use a combination of sensory cues to navigate back to their birthplace for spawning. They rely on the Earth's magnetic field, olfactory memory (sense of smell), and possibly celestial cues to find their way. Research suggests that salmon imprint on the unique chemical signature of their natal stream during the juvenile stage, which guides them home as adults.

What are the threats to salmon populations?

Salmon populations face several threats, including habitat loss due to dam construction, urban development, deforestation, and pollution. Overfishing and climate change also pose significant risks by altering ocean conditions and freshwater habitats. Efforts to mitigate these threats include habitat restoration, sustainable fishing practices, and addressing climate change, as reported by conservation organizations like the National Wildlife Federation.

AllThingsNature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a AllThingsNature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By wavy58 — On Feb 03, 2013

@lighth0se33 – I agree with you there. There is only one way that I like my salmon prepared.

I bake it with butter, lemon juice, and dill weed. The dill brings out the flavor of the salmon somehow, and it isn't overpowering at all.

In fact, I can't eat dill on anything else without thinking of fish. That's just how much salmon and dill belong together!

I use salted butter instead of salting the salmon. The lemon juice adds a nice kick, too.

By cloudel — On Feb 02, 2013

I had steamed salmon in sushi before. To me, it just tasted too raw. I know it had been lightly steamed, but it still had that slick fishy texture.

I prefer smoked salmon. I like to put it in salads with cucumbers and onions.

By lighth0se33 — On Feb 01, 2013

Salmon is great grilled! If I go to a restaurant that offers grilled salmon, I always order it.

It really doesn't need a whole lot of seasoning to be good. It has such a naturally rich flavor, so it doesn't need help.

In fact, seasoning could actually negatively affect the flavor. There aren't too many herbs and spices that complement salmon.

By Oceana — On Feb 01, 2013

I've never had truly fresh salmon, because I don't fish. I'm too scared of catching the wrong kind and getting in trouble for keeping it.

I do like to eat canned salmon, though. It tastes awesome with a little teriyaki sauce. I put in on crackers and have it for lunch.

By catapult43 — On Nov 08, 2009

Just one salmon will deposit a few thousand eggs in the nest the salmon prepares, usually in the gravel, however, few of the eggs will hatch and grow into adult salmon.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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