Lifecycle of a Salmon

All living things change as they grow, like how a duckling grows into a duck, or a caterpillar grows into a butterfly. These changes that occur over the lifespan of a living organism are known as the lifecycle! All species of Pacific salmon – sockeye, Chinook, pink, coho, and chum – share a similar lifecycle. The famous salmon migration up and down the Fraser River each year is an important part of their lifecycle.

Click through the stages below to explore the lifecycle of Pacific salmon.

Ocean Adults
Adult salmon spend their lives in the open waters of the Pacific Ocean. In the ocean, they feed on zooplankton, crabs, shrimp, and smaller fish like herring or mackerel. Their main predators are orcas, large fish, and seals. After spending between one to seven years in the ocean, salmon will migrate back to their natal streams. When it is time to migrate, salmon will gather in large schools and begin their challenging journey upstream.
Migrating Adults
Guided by their sense of smell, adult salmon will migrate back to their natal streams to reproduce. As they begin this part of their lifecycle, salmon will transform. Their colour will change, and their jaws will become hooked with sharp teeth. Some species will even develop a hump on their backs! This migration is a lot of work. Salmon travel around 50 km every day, and may leap over obstacles like fallen trees and waterfalls along the way. They won’t even stop to eat because they are so focused on completing this journey!
Spawners
Salmon that have returned to their natal streams are called spawners. Upon returning, female salmon will use their tails to dig redds, and lay their eggs in them. These eggs will then be fertilized by a male salmon. Most spawners will die after reproduction, which ends the salmon lifecycle. Their bodies will break down and provide nutrients for other living things, such as trees and insect larvae. One spawner can feed thousands of larvae, which then become food for salmon fry!
Eggs
In the fall, female salmon lay their eggs in gravel nests, called redds, in freshwater streams and creeks. One female salmon can lay thousands of eggs! Male salmon swim over top the eggs and fertilize them. To help protect the eggs, the female salmon will cover them up with gravel. Even though the gravel nests provide some protection, many eggs are eaten by predators, or do not survive the cold winter temperatures.
Alevin
In the spring, eggs hatch. Newly hatched salmon are called alevins. They are very tiny and helpless, and stay hidden in their redds for protection. Alevins have a yolk sack attached to their bodies, which is their source of food. After 30 to 50 days, the yolk sack will dry up, and alevins will leave their redds to begin the next stage of their life as fry.
Fry
No, not a French fry – a salmon fry! Salmon fry continue to grow in the freshwater streams and creeks they were born in (known as their natal streams.) They eat food like insect larvae and fish eggs. Salmon fry have dark stripes along their bodies to help them camouflage. Unfortunately, many salmon fry die from predation, disease, or lack of food. Those that do survive will imprint, or remember, their natal stream’s special scent before beginning their journey to the ocean.
Smolts
Fry become smolts as they enter the estuary, a place where freshwater from the river meets the salt water of the ocean. The estuary helps salmon smolts get used to saltier water, and prepares them for their journey into the ocean. Eating food like zooplankton and small crabs helps them grow, and gives them energy to avoid predators such as herons and larger fish! Salmon smolts begin to lose their dark stripes and develop silvery scales. This helps them camouflage in the bright, open waters of the ocean.
Golden Paw
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Teacher’s Guide

Teacher’s Guide – Salmon Fry (best suited for elementary school students)

Teacher’s Guide – Salmon (best suited for high school students & older)

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Resources

Additional Resources – Salmon Fry (best suited for elementary school students)

Additional Resources – Salmon (best suited for high school students and older)

Keep learning about Watershed CPR with this resource from the Fraser River Discovery Centre: My River, My Home

About

The Watershed CPR Education Program is a self-guided, virtual learning experience all about the Fraser River, created by the Rivershed Society of BC.

In this virtual experience, users are introduced to the three pillars of Watershed CPR—Connect, Protect, and Restore—through a series of engaging activities and interactives about the Fraser Watershed. Users will learn about the flora and fauna that inhabit the Fraser; the First Nations who have lived in this area since time immemorial; some of the conservation issues affecting the watershed; and how to “perform Watershed CPR” and become a Watershed Defender.

To learn more about Watershed CPR and the Rivershed Society of BC, visit rivershed.com.

 

Thank you to our partners in development: Cicada Creative and Canadian Geographic, and immense gratitude to the Kwantlen First Nation for their time and contributions to the program. Consultation from Raincoast Conservation Foundation. Funding provided by the Pacific Salmon Foundation, and Environment and Climate Change Canada, via the Environmental Damages Fund.

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This Golden Paw Print means that this is information that can help make your migration journey successful in the Watershed Defender section.