Salmon in our Oceans

The little-known life of salmon at sea

After beginning their lives in rivers and freshwater streams, young Pacific salmon answer biology’s call and migrate to the open ocean – but much of what happens during their time at sea remains a mystery.

We know the smolts feed on plankton and invertebrates to grow into the adult salmon you recognize from ocean docks and your local seafood counter. But we don’t know the whole story. For example, why do sockeye stocks swell every four years? How do salmon find feeding habitats thousands of miles from their freshwater hatching grounds? And what exactly triggers their return home?

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Working together to solve the mystery

When salmon began dying in the Salish Sea – the coastal waters of Puget Sound, the Strait of Georgia and the Strait of Juan de Fuca – North American scientists teamed up to find answers. The rich Salish Sea ecosystem supports approximately 3,000 marine species and all seven species of Pacific salmon, but the waters are getting warmer and more acidic, while marine plant and animal populations are shifting. A large-scale study of the Salish Sea ecosystem and the complex factors affecting young salmon is now underway. The Marine Survival Project is helping us to learn more about salmon in salt water and seeking effective ways to support this cornerstone species.


Preparing for the big migration

Here’s what else we know: salmon thrive in cold ocean waters – and sockeye take on that familiar reddish-orange colour from feasting on krill. Salmon eat a lot at sea and will typically gain about half of their full adult mass during their last six months in salt water. When it’s time to migrate home, salmon stop eating before they enter the river. Fuelled entirely by stored energy (primarily fat), they swim thousands of miles upstream, dodging predators and various dangers in an astonishing journey to their spawning grounds. They reproduce, perish and replenish the environment with essential nutrients – and the cycle continues.


Get involved

Learn more about the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project or connect with our partners at the Pacific Salmon Foundation. Help us ensure the salmon keep swimming in our coastal waters.

Feature Stories

Sew a salmon habitat

Nikki Wright inspires people to “sew” grass – eelgrass to be precise – lots of it and into the ocean floor. The marine vegetation is native to the west coast, and a lifesaver for young salmon. After they spend a year or two in freshwater, the salmon head out for the ocean where they are vulnerable to sharp-eyed eagles and other predators. The long eelgrass that grows close to the shoreline provides essential protection for the salmon and a food source of minnows and small insects.

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Ocean Hazard Under Microscope

A salmon’s diet changes as it grows. Juvenile salmon go for zooplankton among other freshwater food sources; adult salmon in the ocean feed on krill and small fish. But the dense collections of plants that form the very base of the marine food web – algal blooms – pose a threat.

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Beanies Reveal Seal Strategy

The seals are not going after just any salmon. They are targeting juvenile Coho and Chinook that are heading from freshwater out to the Salish Sea.

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Resources and Links

Salish Sea Marine Survival Project

Ocean Watch Howe Sound Edition

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VR On Location

We gratefully acknowledge that UNINTERRUPTED was filmed on the unceded traditional territories of the:
xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam)
Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish)
səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh)
q̓ic̓əy̓ (Katzie)
Little Shuswap Lake Indian Band, Secwepemc Nation

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