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Which salmon species should I choose?
Ultimately, it's a matter of taste — these culinary and nutritional distinctions may assist your choice.

King is the fattiest salmon, while sockeye features the strongest flavor and firmest texture, and cooks more quickly than the other species — usually in just 6 to 7 minutes.

Silver is generally milder and softer than sockeye and king, while keta and pink are generally the mildest and softest salmon.

Nutrition numbers for wild salmon vary by harvest season, year, and location.

The USDA reports these average quantities per 100 gram (3.5 oz) serving:

Species  Total fat (grams) Total Omega-3s (mg)
King (Chinook) 10.4 2,342
Sockeye (Red) 8.6 1,194
Silver (Coho) 5.9 1,474
Keta (Chum/Dog) 3.8 740
Pink (Humpback) 3.5 1,135

NOTE: While farmed salmon has comparable omega-3 levels, its unnatural diet gives it high, pro-inflammatory levels of omega-6 fats. See “Farmed Salmon's Diet Yields Unhealthful Cardiovascular Effects” and our Omega-3/6 Balance page.

Wild Pacific salmon (especially sockeye) offers much more vitamin D than any other food, including farmed salmon. See Wild Salmon Beats Farmed for Vitamin D (Again).

Wild salmon is also the richest food source of astaxanthin (as-tuh-zan-thin) … a carotene-class red-orange pigment with strong antioxidant, anti-inflammatory properties.

Sockeye salmon has the highest astaxanthin levels, which explains the species' deep red-orange color and its other common name: "red" salmon.

About Wild Salmon
For thousands of years, salmon have defined the culture, ecology, and nutrition of Pacific Northwest plants, animals, and native peoples.

Wild Pacific salmon boast very high levels of omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D3, and relatively little omega-6 or saturated fats — attributes that make them an exceptionally healthful and sustainable high-protein food.

Salmon include all six species of Pacific Ocean fish in the genus Oncorhynchus, as well as the species called Atlantic salmon, which belongs to the genus Salmo. Both salmon genera belong to the family Salmonidae, which includes trout.

Unlike most trout species, salmon and other "anadromous" fish — such as shad and steelhead trout — are born in rivers, migrate to the ocean, and then return to their birth rivers to reproduce or "spawn".

The North Pacific Ocean hosts six salmon species:

  • Sockeye/Red (O. nerka)
  • Silver/Coho (O. kisutch)
  • Chum/Dog/Keta (O. keta)
  • Cherry/Seema (O. masou)
  • King/Chinook (O. tshawytscha)
  • Pink/Humpback (O. gorbuscha)

Sockeye, Pink, and Chum salmon are found on both sides of the Pacific, while King and Silver salmon occur only in British Columbia (Canada), Alaska, and the northwest U.S. coast. Cherry salmon occur only in Japan, Korea and eastern Russia.

Salmon in the wild ... and in industrial fish farms
After hatching in rivers and streams, millions of salmon migrate to the sea to mature, living there for one to six years before they return home to spawn in fresh water.

The fat content of salmon is linked to the length of their fresh-water migration, because salmon stop feeding after they start upstream. Some salmon — such as Yukon and Copper River king — swim hundreds of miles upriver to spawn.

What do salmon eat?

Salmon diets vary by species and region, but young salmon mostly eat zooplankton (including tiny, shrimp-like krill) and invertebrates such as aquatic worms.

In the ocean, salmon eat smaller fish such as herring, plus krill and pelagic amphipods (close oceanic cousins to sand hoppers).

What animals eat salmon?
The list of predators that prey on salmon varies over the course of a salmon's life.

Baby salmon fall prey to bigger fish (including older salmon), snakes, and birds. Once out in in the ocean, salmon fall prey to whales, dolphins, seals, sea lions, bigger fish, and humans.

Bears and birds feast seasonally on salmon that've returned to their birth rivers to spawn, and those predators often end a salmon's life.

Salmon in the trees
It's hard to overstate the importance of these keystone species to trees and wildlife, including birds, bears, and wolves ... and to coastal peoples for whom the fish are a vital food and cultural touchstone.

The region’s grizzly bears, who gorge on salmon ahead of their long winter nap, often top 1,000 lbs. And, fed by the nutrients from wild salmon, regional Sitka spruce soar 150 to 225 feet into the sky.

And waste matter from the thousands of creatures that feed on dying salmon in any given river sows nitrogen and other nutrients well into the surrounding forest, fertilizing countless plants and trees. Some scientists call wild salmon the ultimate "biological power cable" — one that brings energy and nutrients from blue surf to green turf.

Scientists verified the value of salmon to Northwest coastal rainforests after finding nitrogen 15 — an isotope that's unique to the ocean — in trees near salmon streams.

Thanks to this bio-marker and others, scientists can gauge the health of a salmon run by examining the surrounding forest over time — even a casual look can reveal a lot.

How mining, logging, and salmon farms can hurt
Salmon return to the exact spot where they hatched, and this homing behavior depends on olfactory (smells) memory.

Even small changes in the mineral or metal content of streams can keep salmon from finding their way home, which is why — in addition to banning salmon farms — Alaska's state constitution prohibits contamination of salmon rivers by mining and logging operations.

Atlantic salmon are industrially farm-raised in many parts of the world, including British Columbia in Canada, which borders Washington State and Alaska. To a much lesser extent, Pacific king (chinook) and silver (coho) salmon are farm-raised, mostly in New Zealand and Chile, with some silver salmon being raised indoors.

Research published since the 1970s has documented the harm caused to wild salmon by salmon farms, directly related to strong evidence that salmon farms spread disease and sea lice to wild salmon migrating past the aquaculture pens.

Randy Hartnell