American Oceans

Types of Salmon

Dive into the fascinating world of salmon with our comprehensive guide to seven species dwelling in our oceans.

a chinook salmon underwater

We’ll take an in-depth look at these incredible fish’s unique characteristics and behaviors, as well as their role in the ecosystem.

Whether you’re an avid angler, a seafood enthusiast, or simply curious about the natural world, our exploration of the various types of salmon will surely reel you in.

Atlantic Salmon

person holding a silver atlantic salmon

Scientific Name: Salmo salar
Other Names: “King of Fish,” kelts, black salmon
Size: 28-30 inches, 8-12 pounds
Distribution: New England and the Mid-Atlantic

Atlantic salmon hail from the genus Salmo– like the Adriatic and brown trout– and are known for their distinctive silver-blue scales with dark spotting. 

They feed on small invertebrates, other fish, and shrimp while serving as food for seals and sharks. 

Thanks to their tasty flesh, Atlantic salmon are popular in commercial fishing. However, their popularity has led to overfishing and protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). When you purchase filets in the grocery store, they exclusively come from farmed Atlantic salmon

Pink Salmon

Scientific Name: Oncorhychus gorbuscha
Other Names: Humpback salmon, Gorbusch, Holia
Size: 20-25 inches, 3-5 pounds
Distribution: Pacific Ocean between Alaska and Asia

Pink salmon are the smallest and most plentiful of the Oncorhynchus genus, also known as the Pacific salmon. They have a greenish-blue back and silver sides with large, ovular black spots. They primarily feed on zooplankton, small fish, and aquatic insects.

When pink salmon are ready to breed, both sexes turn dusky brown on their backs, red on their bellies, and develop dark brown spots. Males grow a large “hump” on their backs before migrating from the ocean. 

These fish are another example of commercially significant farmed salmon, primarily for canning due to their diminutive size. 

Sockeye Salmon

Scientific Name: Oncorhynchus nerka
Other Names: Red salmon, redfish, summer sockeye
Size: 16-30 inches, 4-15 pounds
Distribution: Northwestern Alaska coast inland to Oregon’s Deschutes River

Sockeye salmon are also part of the Oncorhynchus genus, best known for their bright red bodies and green heads during spawning season. They feed on zooplankton, small fish, and squid in the ocean. Once they reach rivers, however, their diet switches to insects and small crustaceans called amphipods. 

While alive, spawning sockeye salmons’ main predators are bears. After death, they continue to play a crucial role in the ecosystem, as their carcasses provide essential nutrients for plants and animals in their spawning grounds.

These fish are prized for their delicious flavor, so several management regulations are in place to maintain their status as sustainably farmed fish.

Chinook Salmon

Wild chinook Salmon in Idaho

Scientific Name: Oncorhynchus tshawytscha
Other Names: King salmon, spring salmon, blackmouth
Size: 36-60 inches, 40-120 pounds

Chinook salmon, also in the Oncorhynchus genus, are the largest and longest-lived Pacific salmon species, earning them the nickname “king salmon.” They have a bluish-green back with silver sides and black spots. They primarily feed on other fish, squid, and shrimp but are subject to predation by orcas and seals.

Due to their impressive size, Chinook salmon are highly sought after for recreational and commercial fishing. They are also essential to the diet of indigenous peoples in the Pacific Northwest. 

As such, tribal officials work with various entities at a state and federal level to ensure regulations are in place to conserve their natural habitats and prevent overfishing. 

Chum Salmon

Scientific Name: Oncorhynchus keta
Other Names: Dog salmon, keta salmon, chub
Size: 24-33 inches, 10-35 pounds
Distribution: Northern Pacific coasts of North America, Canada, and Asia

Another member of the Oncorhynchus genus is the chum salmon, a dark metallic blue- or green-backed fish with silver sides and irregular dark spots. They are the second largest species in the Pacific subgroup.

Like their brethren, chum salmon undergo a dramatic change when it’s time to spawn, which includes bright red and black “tiger” stripes. Males also develop massive fangs, which they showcase to females to encourage them to lay their eggs.  

Chum salmon primarily feast on plankton and mollusks while serving as a favorite food source for marine mammals and birds. Although less desirable for human consumption due to their lower fat content, farmed salmon is good for roe, smoking, and canning.

Coho Salmon

a coho salmon leaping from the water

Scientific Name: Oncorhynchus kisutch
Other Names: Silver salmon, blueback
Size: 24-30 inches, 8-12 pounds
Distribution: Northern Pacific Ocean and coastal streams along North America’s West Coast

Another member of the Oncorhynchus genus, the Coho salmon–also known as the silver salmon– are dark blue- or green-backed fish with silvery sides and small black spots. They have uniquely hook-shaped snouts and sharp teeth. Like the pink salmon, Coho males develop a hump on their back when they are ready to reproduce. 

These opportunistic feeders aren’t picky regarding their meals and will eat any smaller fish, crustaceans, or squid that happen to pass by. They are frequently victims of cannibalistic predation by the giant kin salmon.

Like many sizeable wild salmon species, Coho salmons’ size and strength make them a popular target for anglers. They are also commercially fished, but hatchery programs have helped increase the dwindling populations. 

Masu Salmon

Scientific Name: Oncorhynchus masou
Other Names: Cherry salmon, Masu trout
Size: 20-24 inches, 4-6 pounds
Distribution: Northern Pacific from Russia south to Taiwan

Finally, there’s the Masu Salmon, also part of the Oncorhynchus genus. They have a dark blue or green back with silver sides and dark spots but develop a bright red stripe when ready to spawn. 

When it comes to feeding behaviors, they prefer small critters like insects for food but make a tasty meal for dolphins, seals, and birds. 

Masu Salmon are fished for sport and commercially in their native range, primarily in Japan, Korea, and Russia.

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