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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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
Continue to Next PageContinue to Next PageCongratulations! You’ve unlocked the Watershed Defender ChallengeCongratulations! You’ve unlocked the Watershed Defender Challenge

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)


Please use this form to let us know what you think of this resource. Are there improvements you’d like to see? Good and bad, we’d like to hear from you!



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


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


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.

Privacy Policy

At RSBC we know that protecting the privacy of your personal information is important to you. When you become a member, a customer, or a supporter of RSBC you trust us with personal information. We will do whatever we can to protect your information and maintain your trust.

To maintain your trust we will be guided by the following principles.


RSBC is accountable and responsible for protecting your personal information and for responding to any of your concerns. To assure our accountability RSBC has designated responsibility for compliance with these principles to a Privacy Officer.

Purpose for collecting your personal information

When RSBC collects personal information from you we will tell you why we need this information.

The reasons that we collect your personal information are:

Consent for collecting, using and disclosing your personal information

RSBC will obtain your consent to collect, use, and disclose your personal information excluding exceptional circumstances (such as compliance with a police investigation).

Consent may be implied or express. For example, if you provide us with personal information to obtain a service we will assume you have given us consent to collect and use your information as required to administer and provide the service. And if you provide us with personal information with a donation we will assume that you have granted consent to administer the donation and send you further information about RSBC. Other times, however, such as applying for membership we will ask for your express consent by way of ticking a box on the membership application.

You may withdraw your consent at any time with reasonable notice and with the knowledge that withdrawal may prevent us from providing further products, services or information.

Limits on collecting your personal information

RSBC will only collect personal information that is reasonable to collect for the purposes above.

Limits on the use, disclosure and keeping of your personal information

RSBC will only use and keep your information for the purpose that it was collected.

RSBC will not disclose your personal information without your consent.

RSBC may use your personal information to periodically to gather information from you or request your support.

RSBC will retain your personal information only as long as necessary to fulfill our business purposes.


RSBC will make reasonable efforts to ensure that your personal information is accurate, complete, and current.

If you demonstrate the inaccuracy of your personal information we will amend it or if we cannot agree to change it (for example, records for charitable purposes) we will make a note that a correction was requested but not made.

Keeping personal information private

RSBC will take all reasonable measures to protect your personal information.

Staff that handle your personal information will know this code and how to keep your information secure. This includes precautions such as office alarms, locking file cabinets, passwords to electronic files.

RSBC will also use appropriate measures when disposing of personal information.


RSBC will make every effort to be open about how we protect your personal information. The RSBC Privacy Code and the name and contact information of the Privacy Officer will be made available to all members, customers and supporters on request. Information about it will be disseminated through our newsletter and verbally.

Your access to your personal information

Upon request, and with reasonable notice, RSBC will share with you all or your personal information that we maintain. If you wish to see your personal information write or call the Privacy Officer.

If the information is shown to be inaccurate we will correct the information.


Enquiries and concerns regarding our Privacy Code or your personal information should be directed to the Privacy Officer, RSBC address.

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