Sockeye salmon
For information on sockeye and other salmon and steelhead stocks see:
Recreational Salmon Fishing
SalmonScape
Salmonid Stock Inventory (SaSI)

Washington State and the Columbia River system mark the southern extent of the current distribution of sockeye salmon in North America. In 1992, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) and the western Washington Treaty Indian Tribes identified nine separate sockeye salmon stocks in the state. Lake Washington sockeye (3 stocks) and Columbia River sockeye (2 stocks) are the state's two largest runs of this species. Both runs have supported popular fisheries in past years. Because of intense public interest in the outlook for sockeye fishing, the following web pages will provide updated sockeye counts for Lake Washington (Ballard Locks) and for the Columbia River dams, along with a variety of other information on the management and life histories of these sockeye runs.

Sockeye Life History

Freshwater Life History
Sockeye salmon generally spawn in streams that are tributaries to large lakes. These streams can vary in type, ranging from small tributaries to large mainstem rivers and side-channels. Additionally, some sockeye stocks spawn along the shorelines of lakes. Spawning of various sockeye stocks begins as early as August and some stocks can extend spawning into February. Those sockeye spawning from August through October need adequate stream flows to provide proper spawner distributions on the spawning grounds. All sockeye require extensive, quality spawning riffles for optimum production. Successful egg and alevin survivals are dependent on clean spawning gravels and low to moderate winter stream flows. Sockeye eggs and fry can be negatively impacted by high flows during the fall and winter incubation period. The erosion and downstream movement of spawning gravels is a major cause of egg and alevin losses, and severe flooding can cause mortalities exceeding 90%. Land use practices and natural events that introduce substantial amounts of silt into spawning streams affect sockeye intergravel survivals by reducing the permeability of the gravel, which can affect the survival of incubating eggs and alevins by interfering with the delivery of oxygenated water and the removal of metabolic wastes. Channelization and bank armoring reduces the amount, quality, and diversity of sockeye spawning areas by narrowing and deepening the stream channel. Those sockeye that spawn on lake shores need access to undisturbed shallow water shorelines, and clean gravels with upwelling ground water.

Sockeye Pair on Beach
Cedar River sockeye salmon male (top) and female (bottom) in spawning colors.

The sockeye fry migrate downstream to the deep waters of nursery lakes upon emergence from spawning sites from January through June, at a size of approximately 25 to 32 millimeters (1.0 to 1.25 inches). At this small size, sockeye fry are vulnerable to predation by other fishes and birds, and survivals can be lowered substantially by aggregations of natural or artificially produced predators. Nearly all juvenile sockeye in Washington State rear in lakes for 1 year, and continue to be subjected to predation by other fish species. They also face competition for available food resources with other fish. The production of food organisms is particularly important at this life stage because faster growth rates can increase the survival of the young sockeye.

Estuarine and Ocean Life History

Sockeye smolts emigrate to sea in spring at a length of approximately 4 - 6 inches and are subjected to intense predation by a variety of fish and bird species. Squawfish and trout have been identified as especially significant predators during this outmigration life phase, and gulls and grebes are some of the significant avian predators of sockeye smolts.

The freshwater/saltwater transition zone provided by estuary habitat can be important to the success of sockeye smolts. A natural, productive estuary provides the food resources necessary for the smolts to transit the area, and can offer refuges from numerous fish and bird predator species. In the near shore and open ocean environments, predation by fish, birds, and marine mammals, and competition for food resources with other fish species affects growth and survival of sockeye salmon. Most of the estuaries in Washington have been altered by changes including channelization, dredging, diking, filling of wetlands and tidal areas, and degraded water quality. This alteration and/or loss of estuarine habitat by factors such as urbanization, agriculture, forest land management, and industrial and water resource development has been extensive. These habitat modifications tend to reduce the overall amount of habitat, and reduces the general productivity of estuaries (and food production), which limits overall utility of these areas for sockeye rearing.

Ocean growth and survival of all species of Pacific salmon can be affected by periodic warm water events (El Niño) in local waters, and by cyclic changes in ocean conditions in the North Pacific Ocean. Returning sockeye will have spent 2-4 years at sea upon returning to their natal spawning grounds, with the majority returning in June and July as 4 year old fish at an average weight of about 5 pounds.