Like all species of Pacific salmon, sockeye salmon are anadromous, living in the ocean but entering fresh water to spawn. Sockeye salmon spend one to four years in fresh water and one to three years in the ocean.
In Alaska, most sockeye salmon return to spawn in June and July in freshwater drainages that contain one or more lakes. Spawning itself usually occurs in rivers, streams, and upwelling areas along lake beaches. Sockeye definitely have an interesting life cycle! Follow it below (The last stage at the bottom of the page is the best!).....
Sockeye salmon lay between 2,500 – 4,300 eggs. Five hundred to one thousand eggs are deposited in each of three to five gravel nests, called redds, made by the female. Hatching can occur in six to nine weeks or up to five months depending on water temperature. Most eggs hatch from mid-winter to early spring.
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 the fragile eggs.
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 alevin inside. Aquatic insects and other fish are the primary predators of alevin.
After emerging from the stream gravel, the fry swim upstream or downstream to a lake. They live there for one to two (or rarely three or four years) before migrating to the sea. Initially, the fry stay in the shallow water near the lake shore, but gradually move into deeper water. While in the lakes, they feed on aquatic insects and plankton.
Many physical changes occur in a young salmon to help it make the transition from freshwater to a saltwater existence. It turns silvery to match its new open water environment, and the gills and kidneys change so that they can process salt water. Peak migration from lakes to the ocean occurs in June in Bristol Bay. Once in the sea, sockeye salmon smolts stay close to shore initially, but gradually move into deeper water. Their food consists of zooplankton, insects and small fish.
Adult Ocean Stage
Most Alaskan sockeye salmon spend two or three years in the ocean. Amphipods, copepods, and squid become a large part of the diet as the fish mature.
Sockeye salmon from south of the Alaska Peninsula move into and follow a counter-clockwise current called the Alaska Gyre in the Gulf of Alaska. Sockeyes from Bristol Bay move west along the north side of the Alaska Peninsula, then turn south through Aleutian passes into the Gulf. Most sockeyes spend the summer in a broad band across the western Pacific Ocean south of the Aleutian chain which is an important feeding area. The following winter, the fish split into immature populations and those that will mature and spawn the following year. Younger fish head south into the Gulf of Alaska again, and maturing fish stay north of 50 degrees north latitude.
Freshwater Spawning Stage
The majority of Alaskan sockeye salmon return to spawn at four years old, but some may be five or six. Spawning occurs between July and October almost exclusively in lakes or streams that connect to lakes. The male salmon guards the female from other males while 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. In this way, the eggs are covered, and a new redd is created. She will create three to five redds over a three to five day period.
Dinner Table Stage!
This is the best stage of all for a Sockeye Salmon! Sockeye is an excellent eating fish and most Alaskans will tell you that it is the best eating out of the 5 species of Pacific Salmon that we can catch in Alaska every summer. You can find out more about this stage under the recipes tab!
"Fish Resources - Salmon/Steelhead" USDA Forest Service.
NOAA Fisheries Office of Protected Resources.
Alaska Department of Fish & Game (adfg.state.ak.us).
US Fish & Wildlife Service