© Brandon Cole
At a Glance
This is actually a complex of seven (7) closely related species in the genus Oncorhynchus, including chinook or king salmon, coho or silver salmon, coastal sea-run cutthroat, steelhead, chum salmon, pink salmon, and sockeye salmon, collectively often referred to as “salmonids.”
Range: Today they occupy the North American west coast only as far south as central to southern California, depending on the species, and have lost access to much of their historic habitat.
Habitat Type: Coastal waters, rivers and streams.
Primary Diet: Primarily aquatic insects as juveniles, but also smaller fish as maturing adults.
Estimated Population: Populations of these species are at less than 10% their historic abundance, and several sub-species are down to 1-2%.
States with Current Habitat
Salmon and steelhead are an important part of the food chains of at least 150 other species, including humans. As the healthy stream habitat for these species has been destroyed by human development or been blocked by dams, tens of thousands of fishing-dependent jobs have been lost, and subsistence fishing-dependent Native American communities have been threatened. Restoring these stocks not only makes good biological sense, but it would provide billions of dollars in economic benefits to these struggling coastal communities.
Each of these salmonid species is "anadromous," which means they lay their eggs in freshwater, their young (then called "smolts") gradually move downstream as they grow over several weeks to months where they adapt to salt water conditions in an estuary, and then they spend between 2-5 years in the oceans before returning upstream to lay their eggs in precisely the same river reach as they were hatched in. These fish can migrate many thousands of miles, against many obstacles, as they grow in the ocean to maturity and then migrate back to their natal streams to lay eggs and die. Each species has developed genetically and behaviorally distinct sub-species comprising different "runs," each evolved for the specific freshwater conditions in their natal streams, with different runs often returning at staggered times each year to take advantage of multiple habitat niches.
In 1992, the American Fisheries Society (AFS) identified 106 distinct Northwest salmonid runs as extinct, with another 214 runs in Northern California and the Pacific Northwest at varying degrees of risk of extinction in the near future.
Threats related to Global Warming
Salmonids are cold water fish which typically die when exposed for very long to freshwater temperatures above about 20º C. (72º F.) Global warming has pushed the average summer temperatures of many west coast river systems above that mortality threshold, killing many fish. Global climate change is also diminishing total river flows throughout the northwest and California, as well as changing the basic hydrology that these fish evolved with. In many areas their already limited range is likely to contract. Depleted genetic diversity as well as accelerated habitat loss due to human development has reduced their ability to respond to these stresses. Changing ocean conditions, including ocean acidification, are causing additional stresses to these populations from global warming.
The Institute for Fisheries Resources (IFR) and its sister organization, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations (PCFFA), are both dedicated to protecting and restoring anadromous and marine resources and their native habitats.