Sockeye salmon spawning in Kamchatka© Igor Shpilenok
Science

Sockeye

Science

Sockeye

Iconic and adaptable

Bristol Bay sockeye
The common name for sockeye salmon refers to the bright hues that this iconic species exhibits when spawning: “Sockeye” stems from a mispronunciation of the Salish name for the fish, Suk-kegh, meaning “red fish” | © Jonny Armstrong

With bright red bodies, green heads and hooked jaws exhibited by spawning adults, sockeye (Oncorhynchus nerka) are a truly iconic salmon species. Sockeye are also the third most prevalent salmon species in the Pacific and span a broad geographic and ecologic range. Many populations of sockeye have adapted unique life cycles in response to their local conditions, including a resident form called kokanee that lives its entire life in freshwater.

Sockeye are also highly prized for their meat, which is tinted orange due to their prolific consumption of red krill during their time at sea. Their highly desirable flavor makes them the focus of many fisheries.

International status

Bristol Bay, Alasksa bear
A brown bear nabs a salmon in Bristol Bay, Alaska | © Dave McCoy

The status of sockeye salmon varies by region and among individual populations. Their global status as a species was given a ranking of Least Concern, the least threatened category, in assessments by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in 2008 and 2011. many local stocks are either not faring well or have an uncertain status. For example, in 2008 scientists considered 31% of sockeye stocks to warrant listing as Threatened under IUCN criteria. Further, 32% of sockeye stocks were categorized as Data Deficient because of the lack of sufficient information to determine their status. Further, there are several emerging threats (see below) that could endanger sockeye populations that are currently healthy and productive.

Wild Salmon Center worked in conjunction with the IUCN Salmonid Specialist Group over ten years to systematically catalog the tremendous biodiversity of Pacific salmon, identify important knowledge gaps, and assess the overall status of wild salmon based on international standards. A full description of the results of the 2008 and 2011 sockeye assessments can be found on the IUCN Red List site. In addition, an interactive website, “Visual Sockeye,” summarizes the results and allows users  to fully explore the data used in the assessment.

Kamchatka sockeye
Sockeye spawning in Kamchatka | © Igor Shpilenok

Threats

Bristol Bay Watershed
The Pebble Mine project in Alaska’s Bristol Bay would take place in one of the world’s largest sockeye systems | © Ben Knight

In addition to the challenges faced by many salmon, such as climate change and overfishing, sockeye are threatened by projects like the proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska. This proposed mining development is located in the headwaters of the Nushagak and Kvichak rivers in the Bristol Bay region, one of the most productive salmon ecosystems on Earth and home to the world’s largest sockeye runs. If constructed, Pebble would be the world’s second largest copper/gold/molybdenum mine and would also include the world’s largest dam to hold back up to 10 billion tons of toxic tailings.

WSC’s role

Wild Salmon Center developed a technical report that examines the threats to Bristol Bay’s wild salmon fisheries posed by the Pebble Mine, a summary of which can be viewed here. The full text is available here.

Sockeye spawn in Alaska's Bristol Bay
Sockeye spawn in Alaska’s Bristol Bay, a salmon stronghold | © Jason Ching

We will continue to work with Alaskan partners to protect the region from large-scale mining, on behalf of all those who depend on Bristol Bay’s healthy salmon runs.

Learn more about this topic on our Bristol Bay campaign page.

© Ben Knight
31% of sockeye assessed sub-populations are considered Threatened.
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