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The Salmon Struggle

Salmon lead complex lives, which make them resilient to change but also make them vulnerable to a wide variety of threats. Salmon are born in freshwater, rear in streams, then head downstream to spend time in estuaries where they can grow large enough to survive in the ocean. They return home to spawn, beginning the cycle all over again.

Salmon recovery in Washington focuses on the key factors that led to salmon declines: climate change, habitat degradation, water quality and quantity declines, fish passage barriers, hydropower operation, harvest, hatchery impacts, predation, and scarcity of food.

graphic containing 6 squares with a seal, car, pipe, fire, dam, boat, and skyline showing challenges salmon face


Rebuilding healthy, harvestable salmon populations requires funding to address all threats to salmon.
Seven species of Pacific salmon, steelhead, and bull trout live in Washington State.

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CHINOOK (KING) salmon are the largest Pacific salmon and can live up to 7 years. Chinook have highly diverse life history strategies: some spend more than a year in freshwater as juveniles, while others migrate to estuaries or the ocean after just a few weeks. Some populations return as adults to freshwater in early spring while other populations return in summer through late fall. Chinook are the preferred food of Southern Resident orcas and many humans, who covet their rich, oily meat. Chinook populations have decreased in recent decades across the species’ range. In Washington, Endangered Species Act protections apply to Snake River spring/summer and fall Chinook, upper Columbia River spring Chinook, lower Columbia River Chinook, and Puget Sound Chinook, while several wild populations are more robust.


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CHUM (DOG) are a colorful, locally abundant species in coastal rivers, Puget Sound, Hood Canal, and the Columbia River. Juvenile chum migrate to the ocean almost immediately after emerging from their natal gravels, generally returning 3 to 4 years later to spawn. In Washington, chum favor lower river habitats with upwelling water, particularly in areas scoured by ice-age glaciers. Chum often are targeted for their large eggs, cured and eaten as caviar. In Washington, Endangered Species Act protections apply to lower Columbia River chum and Hood Canal summer chum, while abundant wild Puget Sound fall chum support recreational and commercial fishing.


A picture containing a fish with red markings and a hooked snoutCOHO (SILVER), like their close relative the Chinook, are popular targets for sport and commercial fishing. Coho generally spawn in small streams and spend a year in freshwater before migrating to the ocean. Most return as 3-year-old adults. In Washington, Endangered Species Act protections apply to lower Columbia River coho. Snake River and mid-Columbia River coho are being reintroduced after being driven to extinction. Tribally led efforts to reintroduce coho in several Columbia River watersheds are showing promise, and more abundant populations persist in Puget Sound and on the Coast.


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PINK (HUMPBACK OR HUMPY) are the smallest and most abundant Pacific salmon throughout their native range. Like their close relative chum salmon, pinks spend very little time in freshwater after emerging from the gravel. Unlike other salmon that spawn at various ages, pinks only return to their rivers as 2-year-old adults. In Washington, this results in abundant runs of adult pink salmon during odd years, while in even years they are almost absent. Pink salmon are harvested in large numbers and used for affordable, processed salmon products such as salmon patties or frozen fillets. Pink salmon populations are considered healthy throughout their ranges.


Picture containing multiple red fishSOCKEYE (RED OR BLUEBACK), like chum and pink salmon, are near the southern end of their ranges in Washington State. Prized for their deep red meat, sockeye populations that are not Endangered Species Act-listed are targeted by tribal, commercial, and sport fishers along the Coast, Columbia River, and a few rivers in Puget Sound. Sockeye juveniles spend substantial time in lakes, a unique life history choice for Pacific salmon. Further north, sockeye form the backbone of the Bristol Bay fishing industry in western Alaska, where tens of millions of fish are harvested annually. Lake Ozette sockeye are protected by the Endangered Species Act in Washington, as are Snake River sockeye, which pass through Washington en route to their spawning areas in Idaho.

Picture containing a silver fish and rocksBULL TROUT are more closely related to brook trout and arctic char than Pacific salmon. Bull trout live complex lives. Some travel to saltwater as adults, while others spend their entire lives in freshwater, sometimes spending their adult years in reservoirs. All bull trout populations in Washington are Endangered Species Act-listed, and all require extremely cold, clean water to survive. Bull trout populations are found throughout the state.


Picture containing a fish with orange markingsSTEELHEAD are a type of rainbow trout that migrate to the ocean to grow to adulthood. Unlike their other Pacific salmon relatives, steelhead do not always die after spawning and can sometimes return to their natal rivers to spawn several times. Steelhead juveniles rear in freshwater longer than other salmon, often for 2 or more years before migrating to the ocean. Adults return to rivers throughout the year, with major run peaks in winter and summer, depending on the population. Steelhead are popular sport fish throughout their ranges. Endangered Species Act protections apply to lower, middle, and upper Columbia River steelhead, Snake River steelhead, and Puget Sound steelhead in Washington. The last populations of steelhead in Washington without Endangered Species Act protection are on the Washington Coast, where returns have been poor in recent years.

Banner photograph by Toan Chu, Unsplash

Fish photographs; Chinook photograph by Jess Newley, Friends of the San Juans; chum photograph by K. KING, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; bull trout photograph by Roger Tabor, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service;
Coho, pink, and sockeye photographs by John R. McMillan, NOAA / NWFSC; steelhead photograph by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Photograph for climate by Marc Duboiski, Recreation and Conservation Office.

Photograph for hatcheries of the Chief Joseph Dam hatchery courtesy of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.