Due to natural variability, there will be major quality differences in wild salmon, no matter how well the fish is handled. Learning about specific runs of salmon, more so than specific species, is often the best way to find consistency in wild salmon that fits specific needs. White Chinook salmon get their lighter flesh color because its food source consists of sardines or anchovies compared to pinkier flesh from salmon that consume mostly krill. There can be considerable price variation with higher oil content fish getting a higher price in the market. Because Chinook have such a high oil content, they are often smoked. Chinook is graded under 7, 7-11, 11-18, and 18 up. Fresh and frozen is mostly available headed and gutted.
Key sustainability sourcing notes for Chinook salmon based on combining landings data from 2012-2015 and the most recent 2011 (Alaska) and 2016 (British Columbia, U.S. West Coast) Seafood Watch assessments and 2015 MSC certification (Alaska):
~~20% of global Chinook salmon landings are MSC-certified (from Alaska)
~60% of global Chinook salmon landings meet a Seafood Watch "Good Alternative (yellow)" rating (~98% of British Columbia landings and ~15% of U.S. West Coast landings)
~7.5% of global Chinook salmon landings meet a Seafood Watch "Avoid (red)" rating (Puget Sound, Washington and South Coast, British Columbia)
~7.5% of global Chinook salmon landings are unrated (Japan and Russia)
North American landings of Chinook salmon increased ~25% from 2012-2015
Chinook salmon are the largest of the Pacific salmon, hence the name “king salmon.” They grow up to five feet in length (1.5 meters) and can weigh 130 pounds. Most, however, are about three feet (about one meter) in length and weigh 30 pounds. Chinook salmon mature between ages two and seven years old, and begin spawning at three or four years old.
Like other salmon species, Chinook salmon are anadromous, meaning they hatch in freshwater streams and rivers, then migrate to saltwater environments to feed and grow, and will return to the freshwater streams and rivers of their birth to spawn. Females dig out gravel nests called redds on stream bottoms to lay their eggs. All Chinook salmon die after spawning. The carcasses are known to be a valuable source of energy and nutrients to the river ecosystem, improving newly hatched salmon growth and survival by contributing nitrogen and phosphorous compounds to the water.
Freshwater fry entering the parr stage have well-developed camouflaging stripes along their sides. Before the juveniles migrate to the sea, they lose their parr marks for a dark back and light belly. While in the ocean, Chinook salmon are blue-green on their back with silvery sides and white bellies. They have black spots on the upper half of their body and their tail fin. Chinook salmon also have a black pigment along their gum line, giving them the nickname “blackmouth.” During spawning season, Chinook change to a brown, red, or purple color, which is most evident in males. Males also develop a humped back and hooked upper jaw that is prominent in most salmon species.
Young Chinook salmon feed on insects, amphipods, and crustaceans. Adult Chinook feed mainly on fish. Birds and fish, such as whiting and mackerel, eat juvenile Chinook salmon. Sharks and marine mammals, such as orcas and sea lions, eat adult Chinook salmon
Chinook salmon are found along the Pacific Coast of North America from Monterey Bay, California to the Chukchi Sea, Alaska. Across the Pacific, they spawn in Russian rivers from Chukotka to Kamchatka; however, they are less abundant there than in North America. Chinook salmon occur in Japan and have been reported in the Shinano, Teshio, and Tokachi rivers, and will make feeding migrations along the coast of northern Japan. They have also been introduced into the Great Lakes, where they are not native.
Like other salmon species, Chinook salmon are anadromous and will spend their lives in both fresh and salt water. Chinook salmon hatch and spend their early lives feeding and growing in freshwater streams, rivers, estuaries, and wetlands. There are two juvenile Chinook salmon life history types: “stream-type” which tend to reside in freshwater for a year or more before migrating to the ocean and “ocean-type” which tend to migrate to the ocean within their first year. Chinook salmon will spend varying lengths of time in the ocean, anywhere from two to seven years, and throughout this time will migrate and feed throughout the Pacific. Generally, stream-type Chinook will perform extensive offshore migrations in the north-central Pacific whereas ocean-type tend to stay in more coastal waters and will migrate along the coast. Chinook salmon return to the freshwater rivers, streams, and tributaries of their birth to spawn during seasonal “runs.” Chinook salmon lay their eggs in gravel nest called “redds” and will die after spawning.
Science & Management
The Auke Bay Laboratories’ Salmon Ocean Ecology and Bycatch Analysis (SOEBA) program studies the ecological processes that drive the productivity of anadromous fish in the various ecosystems within the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea. Their research helps federal fishery decision-making in better sustaining fish populations, fisheries, and fishing communities in accordance with NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center’s science plan and guidance memo. The program focuses on: marine ecology research, forecasting salmon and groundfish recruitment, and evaluating the impacts of commercial fisheries on salmon populations.
The lab’s Ecosystem Monitoring and Assessment (EMA) program monitors changes in large marine ecosystems of the North Pacific, and informs on changes in marine salmon growth, health, and abundance in relation to adult salmon returns. Goals of the EMA include:
Developing physical and biological indicators of ecosystem processes and status to help predict future class strength of salmon and groundfish
Foster international efforts in marine research in the North Pacific Ocean, Bering Sea, Gulf of Alaska, and Arctic Ocean
Participate in Yukon River Joint Technical Committee annual meetings to inform salmon managers and users on changes in ocean conditions and Yukon River salmon sizes, fitness, and abundance
Digitize the seasonal and annual marine growth on salmon
NOAA’s Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund (PCDRF), established in the year 2000, aids in the reversal of declining Pacific salmon and steelhead populations and contributes to their recovery by blending science, communities, and local economies to ensure that they are effectively and efficiently benefiting salmon populations. The increase in jobs and support has led to habitat restoration and protections projects resulting in significant changes in salmon habitat conditions and availability, as well as the re-establishment of previously inaccessible streams.
A 2007 study done by NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center and the University of Washington at the Snohomish River Basin estimated a 20 to 40 percent decline in Chinook salmon populations by the year 2050 due to climate-related habitat deterioration. Future studies should consider different Chinook stocks, and fishery harvest rates that impact adult numbers.
NOAA Fisheries and the North Pacific Fishery Management Council manage the Chinook salmon fishery in Alaska under the Fishery Management Plan (FMP) for Salmon Fisheries in the EEZ off the Coast of Alaska. Alaska accounts for around half of the US Chinook salmon harvest, and the fishery is of significant commercial and cultural importance. All management of salmon fisheries occurring in federal waters – including commercial, recreational, and subsistence – is deferred to the State of Alaska. This helps ensure that management remains consistent throughout the state as well as through the salmon’s range.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game regulates the salmon fisheries in Alaska by setting escapement goals. These goals are in place to ensure that enough salmon escape the fishery and are able to successfully return to freshwater and spawn – replenishing the population. Each year, managers and scientists conduct in-season assessments to determine the number of salmon returning to freshwater to spawn. Based on these returns, harvest limits are set, and scientist and managers will monitor and record both catch and escapements in real-time. When abundance is high and the number of fish returning is much higher than needed to meet escapement goals, harvest levels are set higher. When abundance is low, and catch levels are exceeding escapement goals, harvest levels are set lower and the fishery may close earlier than expected.
Generally, the US West Coast only accounts for a smaller portion of the total North American salmon harvest; however, this is not the case for Chinook salmon as West Coast landings account for a significant proportion of the North American catch. Along the US West Coast, a variety of federal, state, and tribal authorities manage Chinook salmon fisheries depending on the location of the fishery. US West Coast ocean salmon fisheries are managed by NOAA Fisheries and the Pacific Fisheries Management Council (PFMC) under the Pacific Coast Salmon Plan. The PFMC reviews this plan annually by comparing the reports of the previous fishing season to the estimated abundance for the current year. Based on these reports a management plan is recommended by the PFMC for the upcoming fishing season – with final implementation to be carried out by NOAA Fisheries. State and tribal managers also use these recommendations to shape their own policies for inland fisheries – with these policies then being carried out by the tribes or state Fish and Wildlife agencies in close coordination with the PFMC. Overall, specific management measures can vary by year depending on the seasons’ estimated abundance, but generally include:
Time and area restrictions
Establishing season length
The overall goal of these measures is to ensure that fishers can harvest the maximum amount of Chinook salmon the fishery can support while preventing the overharvesting of the species and ensuring populations with low abundance can rebuild. Additionally, the FMP identifies essential fish habitat and contains allocation provisions to ensure salmon resources are shared relatively fairly among the user groups.
Management of Chinook salmon fisheries must also comply with measures outlined in the US Endangered Species Act (ESA) as well as the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). Many salmon populations are considered depressed – with some Chinook salmon populations considered to be “Threatened” or “Endangered” under the ESA and COSEWIC. The causes of these declines vary – but can include obstruction of natural migration routes by dams, pollution, and climate change. Managers set measures to minimize bycatch of ESA- listed stocks and require the live release of Chinook during specified times in particular locations. To help supplement wild populations, captive rearing in hatcheries occurs throughout the salmon’s native range. Many of these hatchery stocks are also protected by the ESA, as they are necessary for rebuilding wild populations.
The Pacific Salmon Commission helps coordinate management and research of shared international Chinook stocks between the US and Canada. The Commission is comprised of a sixteen-person body with four commissioners and four alternates representing the interest of commercial and recreational fishers as well as federal, state, and tribal governments from each country. The body was originally formed by the US and Canadian government to implement the Pacific Salmon Treaty. First ratified in 1985, the Pacific Salmon Treaty is a bilateral agreement that aims to prevent overfishing, provide optimal harvest, and ensure equal benefits of salmon production between the two countries. The US, along with Canada, Russia, Japan, and South Korea, is also a member of the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission. The primary goal of the Commission is to provide a mechanism for international cooperation of Chinook and other salmon species in the northern Pacific Ocean.
In addition to adhering to these commissions and treaties, Chinook salmon are managed by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) in Canada under: the Southern Pacific Salmon Integrated Fisheries Management Plan (IFMP) (covering waters south of Cape Caution, including the Fraser River watershed), the Northern Pacific Salmon IFMP (covering waters north of Cape Caution, including the Skeena River watershed) the Salmon Transboundary Rivers IFMP (covering the Alsek, Stikine, and Taku River watersheds), and the Wild Salmon Policy. Canadian Chinook production occurs mainly in major river systems such as the Fraser and Yukon Rivers. Management strategies mirror those in the US, with managers conducting preseason forecast which estimate abundance, setting total allowable catch limits and escapement goals, and real-time in-season monitoring. Additional management measures include:
Time and area restrictions
Gear restrictions and the use of selective fishing techniques
Live release of weak, threatened, and/or endangered stocks
Chinook salmon have low fecundity, compensated in part by a large number of eggs. Chinook salmon in British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon have been particularly susceptible to habitat loss, climate change, pollution, introduced species, overfishing, and dam construction.
Chinook salmon stocks in Alaska are considered healthy, but Chinook salmon populations in California and Oregon south of Cape Falcon are declining. Of the Chinook salmon populations in the Pacific, two are “endangered,” seven are “threatened,” and one is a “species of concern.” According to scientists, the Sacramento River winter-run Chinook population could go extinct within 50 years. In 2016, Seafood Watch listed wild Chinook salmon in Puget Sound as 'avoid' because the stock is currently listed under the Endangered Species Act.
Habitat impacts (Wild)
Chinook salmon are caught using gillnets, purse seines, and trolling gear, all of which rarely touches the seafloor so there is little lasting physical impact on these habitats.
Endangered winter-run Chinook is often caught unintentionally by fishermen targeting other salmon since it’s difficult to differentiate among the stocks. In the Chinook fishery, gillnets can ensnare seabirds although a 2016 Seafood Watch report noted that, anecdotally, bird bycatch rates are low.
Management measures in Alaska, which include limits on gear sizes such as boat length and mesh size, are considered highly effective. A Seafood Watch report from 2016 noted that significant progress had been made in managing salmon along the U.S. West Coast. Despite the complicated presence of endangered species, Seafood Watch considered management of most of these salmon fisheries to be careful and highly effective.