Chinook salmon

Chinook salmon, Roger Inghram Photo

(Oncorhynchus tshawytscha)

Physical Characteristics: The largest species of the Pacific salmon family, this fish averages 33-36 inches long and 10-50 pounds; though it’s possible for them to grow up to 5 feet long and weigh over 100 pounds. They are blue-green, red, or purple on the back and top of the head with silvery sides and white belly. Black spots occur on the tail and upper half of the body; often the mouth is a dark purple. During the mating season they develop a reddish tint around the dorsal fins and tail. Males have a distinctively hooked mouth.

Diet: Juvenile Chinook feed on aquatic invertebrates, including crustaceans and amphipods. Adults ingest smaller fish.

Habitat: Adults lay eggs in fast-moving, fresh water streams and rivers. Oxygenation is crucial, as it stimulates the growth of algae, which in turn allows other aquatic life to prosper that feeds the salmon. They need clean, cool, sediment-free water with riparian vegetation and debris to help protect smolts and juveniles, and keep water temperatures low. As Chinook salmon reach adulthood they move out into the open ocean, where they adapt accordingly to a varied environment.

Range: Chinook salmon are found in the cold, upper reaches of the Pacific Ocean, from the west coast of the United States, western Canada, Alaska, even in Russian and Japanese waters. The waterways of the Clearwater Basin provide essential “runs” or spawning courses during the summer, where the species is often rightly referred to as Chinook summer salmon. There is a also a fall-run in the lower Clearwater.

Reproduction: When an adult Chinook salmon reaches maturity at about 3-7 years, it makes the journey back to its natal waters from the ocean, sometimes a journey of several hundred miles. At their birth stream, male and female salmon pair up to breed. The female digs a nesting hole called a redd, where she deposits thousands of eggs before the male releases his sperm. During incubation the male and female guard the eggs, but both will die before the next generation hatches. For the first year or so the juvenile salmon will stay in the freshwater environment, moving gradually to estuaries, then the open ocean.

Threats: Chinook salmon are listed as endangered, with abundant threats including overfishing, diversion and overuse of water resources, dams that alter the speed of water flow and block essential spawning routes, and habitat loss due to development. However, the spring/summer runs in the Clearwater are not listed because there is uncertainty as to whether these salmon are from natural migrants or from planted fish that came from Salmon River stocks.

Miscellaneous: Other commonly used names for this species are King salmon, Quinnat salmon, Spring salmon, and Tyee salmon. Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest have teamed with state, federal, and academic groups to protect the species, improve habitat and facilitate natural processes. Chinook salmon were enthusiastically described and eaten in the journals of Lewis and Clark. The expedition first encountered the fish as a gift from Chief Cameahwait, brother of Sacajawea. At the first taste, the explorers were convinced they had crossed the Continental Divide.

The Pacific Northwest used to be home to the greatest salmon rivers in the world. They became part of Northwestern identity. But four dams on the Lower Snake River have been blocking salmon passage, pushing wild fish to the brink of extinction.

People are fighting back. The generation that remembered the Snake River before it was dammed, and those who have experienced the salmon’s decline are speaking out. Join them in telling the government to remove those dams, save the salmon, and protect the Pacific Northwest way of life. Make a comment here.




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