Sockeye Salmon

Male Sockeye, Blueback, or Red Salmon

Oncorhynchus nerka

sockeye, male

Courtesy American Fisheries Society & Phillips Petroleum Foundation

Nerka is the Russian popular name of this species. The name sockeye possibly comes from Salishan-speaking Indians of southern Vancouver Island.

Sockeye live in freshwater lakes for their first two to three years, then spend their adult lives in the Pacific Ocean from the Bering Sea to Southern California to Northern Japan. Their sensitivity to habitat deterioration had threatened their survival, and they were the first anadromous species to be listed under the Endangered Species Act. They are still on the verge of extinction.

Mature sockeye weigh in at an average of only about six and one-half pounds. Yet they can migrate more than a thousand miles to reach preferred spawning beds.

A subspecies, called kokanee (O. n. kennerlyi) is a smaller, landlocked relative.

Female Sockeye

sockeye, female

Courtesy American Fisheries Society & Phillips Petroleum Foundation

"red char"

Captain Lewis identified the fish now called sockeye as the "red Charr," but the char belongs to the genus Salvelinus—the old European term for char. These fish, he wrote on March 13, 1806,

are reather broader in proportion to their length than the common salmon [chinook; Oncorhynchus tshawytscha]. The scales are also imbricated [overlapping] but reather large. The nostrum [nose] exceeds the lower jaw more, and the teeth are neither as large nor so numerous as those of the salmon.

Some of them are almost entirely red on the belly and sides; others are much more white than the salmon [chinook] and none of them are variegated with the dark spots which make the body of the other.

Their flesh, roes, and every other particular with respect to their form is that of the Salmon.

This fish we did not see until we descended below the great falls of the Columbia [Celilo Falls], but whether they are exclusively confined to this portion of the river or not at all seasons, I am unable to determine.