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The Salmon Life Cycle

The life stages of salmon varies by species. Some salmon remain in Puget Sound. Others travel the Pacific Ocean for years. Most return to the stream or lake where they were born to spawn.

Salmon Life Stages    
  • Incubation
  • Emergence
  • Freshwater Rearing
  • Estuary Rearing
  • Estuary Ocean Transition
  • Ocean Residence
  • Spawning Migration
  • Spawning
  • The salmon life cycle occurs in a chain of connected environments: stream, estuary, nearshore, and ocean. If these environments are not maintained in a healthy state, salmon populations can decline.

    From Egg To Spawning Adult  
    It's a difficult journey from egg to spawning adult. Only about two percent of all salmon hatched will live to adulthood. There are many natural predators of salmon - birds, fish, marine mammals, and disease. Human-made obstacles include harvesting, river blockages, pollution, and poor habitat management.  
    salmon eggs  
  • Incubation
    The female salmon chooses a site, digs a nest (redd) with her tail, then deposits eggs. One or more males fertilize the eggs. Each nest contains between 500 and 1,200 eggs. About 20 out of 100 eggs laid may survive to become fry.
  • salmon alevin  
  • Emergence
    In late winter, the eggs hatch. Tiny alevins nestled in gravel live on the nutritious yolk "pot belly" on their undersides. While they have a yolk sac, alevins don't need to eat. Once the yolk sac is gone, they must find food quickly or they will starve.
  • Freshwater Rearing
    When juvenile salmon or fry emerge from the redd, they must find food immediately. Most feed on insects as they grow. Salmon fry may spend hours to years in freshwater, depending on the species. Sockeye spend the longest amount of time in freshwater (1-3 years). Pink and chum fry spend the least amount of time in freshwater and immediately move downstream toward estuaries.
  • Salmon smolts.  
  • Estuary Transition & Rearing
    Saltwater meets freshwater in estuaries, making a mix called "brackish" water. When fry enter estuaries, they begin to adapt to saltwater ­ a process called "smoltification." This major change causes young salmon to become less active and more vulnerable to predators such as birds and larger fish. To survive, young salmon must find places to hide and feed. Ocean-bound young salmon may spend days or months in estuaries and nearshore waters as they adjust to saltwater and grow, getting ready for an ocean journey.
  • Estuary Ocean Transition
    At this stage, juvenile salmon travel from the protective waters of the estuary, along nearshore coastal areas, and into the open ocean.
    salmon in the ocean  
  • Ocean Residence
    Depending on the species, salmon may feed and grow in the ocean from six months to five years. Most head north, following the coast. They may travel thousands of miles, heading into the Gulf of Alaska and points beyond. While at sea, salmon must evade predators such as larger fish, killer whales, dolphins, sea lions, and seals.
  • Migration to Spawn
    After one to seven years, depending on the species, salmon return to their home stream, river, or sometimes a lake to spawn. What causes adult salmon to move from ocean feeding grounds to their birthplace is not fully understood. Some scientists believe that salmon "smell" their way home, remembering smells along the way.
    spawning salmon  
  • Spawning
    When salmon enter enter freshwater to spawn, they stop eating. They lose their shiny, silvery colors; males may take on bright body colors, a hooked nose, and large teeth. Females may develop darker colors. Some species, such as steelhead may spawn more than once. Most salmon species die within one week of spawning. The dead salmon are not wasted. Their decomposing bodies add important nutrients to the stream or river. Dead and decaying salmon also provide food for a wide range of wildlife including bald eagles, bear, mink, and river otter.

    Saving Salmon

    • Salmon need healthy estuaries and nearshore waters to migrate, thrive, and survive a complex life cycle.
    • Population growth and development along Puget Sound have contributed to declines in salmon populations.

    Fish images courtesy Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

    Related Topics

    Salmon, Why salmon use estuaries and nearshore waters.
    Salmon Species, Estuary use varies.
    Salmon & The Nearshore, Plants provide food and shelter.
    Bulkheads, Bulkheads can damage salmon habitat.

    Related Links

    Puget Sound Nearshore Environments: Salmon Use, Large River Mouth, King County Department of Natural Resources. A color illustration showing zones used by juvenile salmon.

    Wild Salmon: Our Precious Natural Resource, Washington State Department of Fish & Wildlife. Salmon/Steelhead species information.

    Washington Wild Salmonid Restoration, WA State Recreation and Conservation Office, Salmon Recovery Office. Information about Washington state's salmon restoration efforts and the Endangered Species Act.

    Salmon and Steelhead Conservation, Washington State Department of Fish & Wildlife. 21st Century Salmon and Steelhead Initiative. 

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