Chum salmon can be the best value on the market when the skin is bright and the meat deep red, according to some buyers. Since most chum salmon spawns near river mouths, they have lower oil content than sockeye, Chinook, or coho. Chum salmon has a mild taste, is low in sodium, and is a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, niacin, vitamin B12, and selenium. Chum is graded 2-4, 4-6, 6-9, and 9 up and is readily available fresh and frozen, both H&G and fillets, but may also be canned or smoked. Like other kinds of salmon, chum quality differs greatly depending on the run. Buyers recommend learning about specific runs and their characteristics in order to identify the best salmon. The eggs are sold as ikura in Japan, where they have a high value. Buyer beware: chum are some times sold as coho, a more expensive fish, because they are similar in size. Chum can be identified by a thinner caudal peduncle (the area just in front of the tail).
Key sustainability sourcing notes for chum salmon based on landings data from 2016-2017 and based on the most recent Seafood Watch assessments and MSC certifications as of June, 2019:
~25% of chum salmon global landings are MSC-certified (wild-caught from Alaska, British Columbia, and Russia)
<2% of chum salmon global landings meet a Seafood Watch "Good Alternative (yellow)" rating (Puget Sound, Washington)
~75% of chum salmon global landings are unrated or unknown (Most all from Japan and Russia, <2% from British Columbia)
Global chum salmon landings in 2017 saw a decrease of ~15% from 2016 landings and ~20% from 2014 landings
Chum salmon are the second largest of the Pacific salmon, behind only Chinook salmon in size. Like other salmon species, chum salmon are anadromous, meaning they hatch in freshwater streams and rivers, then migrate to saltwater environments to feed and grow. In the ocean, they are a metallic blue-green along the back, with black specks, similar to sockeye and coho salmon. In freshwater, both sexes develop a red and black tiger-striped pattern. Males develop canine fangs and a hooked upper jaw. Freshwater fry entering the parr stage have well-developed camouflaging stripes along their sides. Before the juveniles migrate to the sea, they lose their parr marks for a dark back and light belly.
Chum salmon grow up to 3.6 feet (1.5 meters) in length and weigh 30 to 35 pounds; however, most are caught averaging between eight to 15 pounds. They reach maturity between ages three and six. Peak spawning season is in the early winter when the river is high. Chum salmon nest near the mouth of rivers, about 60 miles (97 km) from the ocean because of their large size and limited jumping ability to move farther upstream into shallower waters. Females dig out gravel nests called redds on stream bottoms to lay their eggs, laying about 2000-4000. All chum salmon die after spawning. The carcasses are known to be a valuable source of energy and nutrients to the river ecosystem, improving newly hatched salmon growth and survival by contributing nitrogen and phosphorous compounds to the water. Unlike other salmon species, chum salmon fry do not spend an extended period of time in freshwater and begin migrating back to estuarine and marine waters a few days after they are born.
Young salmon feed on insects and marine invertebrates as they migrate downriver and into estuaries and near-shore habitats. Adults eat copepods, fish, mollusks, squid, and tunicates. A variety of fish and birds prey on juvenile chum salmon. Adults are preyed upon by sharks, sea lions and seals, and orcas.
Chum salmon have the widest distribution of any of the Pacific salmon species. Along the Pacific Coast of North America they range from Alaska and British Columbia to as far south as Yaquina Bay, Oregon – although historically, they range as far south as San Diego, California. Across the Pacific, they range from Korea to Japan to Russia. Populations also occur in Asia in Iran and in the Arctic Ocean. Chum salmon are anadromous and hatch in freshwater streams and rivers. Like pink salmon, chum salmon do not have a period of freshwater residence after they hatch. After hatching, the fry begin an immediate downstream migration and will remain in estuaries and near-shore areas for days or months before entering the ocean. Once adapted to marine waters, populations in the northwest Pacific Ocean will move into the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska. Adults will remain at sea for three to six years before returning to their natal streams and tributaries to spawn in the fall. Compared to other salmon species, chum salmon are poor jumpers and waterfalls and other barriers that may not impede other salmon species can often stop them. Chum salmon tend to spawn in the lowermost reaches of their natal rivers and streams, typically within 62 miles of the ocean – although some chum salmon travel over 2,000 miles to spawn in the Yukon Territory. They will spawn in small side channels and other areas of large rivers where upwelling provides ideal conditions for egg survival. They will also spawn in small streams and intertidal zones.
Science & Management
The Auke Bay Laboratory’s Salmon Ocean Ecology and Bycatch Analysis (SOEBA) program studies the ecological process that drives the productivity of anadromous fish in the various ecosystems within the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea. Their research helps federal fishery decision-making in better sustaining fish populations, fisheries, and fishing communities in accordance with NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center science plan and guidance memo. The program focuses on marine ecology research, forecasting salmon and groundfish recruitment, and evaluating the impacts of commercial fisheries on salmon populations.
The lab’s Ecosystem Monitoring and Assessment Program (EMA) monitors changes in large marine ecosystems of the North Pacific and informs on changes in marine salmon growth, health, and abundance in relation to adult salmon returns. Goals of the EMA include:
Developing physical and biological indicators of ecosystem processes and status to help predict future class strength of salmon and groundfish;
Foster international efforts in marine research in the North Pacific Ocean, Bering Sea, Gulf of Alaska, and the Arctic Ocean;
Participate in Yukon River Joint Technical Committee annual meetings to inform salmon managers and users on changes in ocean conditions and Yukon River salmon sizes, fitness, and abundance; and,
Digitize the seasonal and annual marine growth on salmon.
NOAA’s Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund (PCDRF), established in the year 2000, aids in the reversal of declining Pacific salmon and steelhead populations and contributes to their recovery by blending science, communities, and local economies to ensure that they are effectively and efficiently benefiting salmon populations. The increase in jobs and support has led to habitat restoration and protection projects resulting in significant changes in salmon habitat conditions and availability, as well as the re-establishment of previously inaccessible streams.
The State of Alaska Hatchery Research Project is studying the interactions of wild and hatchery pink and chum salmon in Prince William Sound and southeast Alaska streams. The goal is to further document the degree to which hatchery straying is occurring, assess the range of variability in straying rates, and determine the effects on the wild population’s fitness or productivity when hatchery fish spawn with wild populations. As of May 2016, field work has been done to assess (a) the genetic stock composition of pink and chum salmon in these regions, and whether there is a single population or discrete stocks, and (b) how much straying there is for both wild and hatchery pink and chum stock, and the amount of annual variation therein. Analysis has not yet been published. Understanding the impact of fitness or productivity of wild pink and chum salmon stocks due to straying of hatchery populations is necessary for completion. The science panel considers the fitness studies to be important for the long-term understanding of wild and hatchery interactions. The project is expected to be complete in the year 2023.
NOAA Fisheries and the North Pacific Fishery Management Council manage the chum salmon fishery in Alaska under the Fishery Management Plan (FMP) for Salmon Fisheries in the EEZ off the Coast of Alaska. Alaska accounts for the majority of the US chum salmon harvest and the fishery is of significant commercial and cultural importance. All management of salmon fisheries occurring in federal waters – including commercial, recreational, and subsistence – is deferred to the State of Alaska. This helps to ensure that management remains consistent throughout the state as well as through the salmon’s range.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game regulates the salmon fisheries in Alaska by setting escapement goals. These goals are in place to ensure that enough salmon escape the fishery and are able to successfully return to freshwater and spawn – replenishing the population. Each year, managers and scientists conduct in-season assessments to determine the number of salmon returning to freshwater to spawn. Based on these returns, harvest limits are set, and scientist and managers will monitor and record both catch and escapements in real-time. When abundance is high and the number of fish returning is much higher than needed to meet escapement goals, harvest levels are set higher. When abundance is low, and catch levels are exceeding escapement goals, harvest levels are set lower and the fishery may close earlier than expected.
There are hundreds of chum salmon stocks in Alaska and the fishery is well managed. While some stocks are experiencing decline, some are remaining steady and even increasing. As of 2017, no Alaskan chum salmon stock is listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Along the US West Coast, a variety of federal, state, and tribal authorities manage salmon fisheries depending on the location of the actual fishery. US West Coast ocean salmon fisheries are managed by NOAA Fisheries and the Pacific Fisheries Management Council (PFMC) under the Pacific Coast Salmon Plan. All Pacific salmon species and any listed under the ESA fall under the jurisdiction of this plan; however, there are no directed fisheries for chum salmon in federal waters. As such, the plan only outlines fishery management objectives for Chinook, coho, and pink salmon along with any stock listed under the ESA.
Chum salmon are primarily caught in inland waters in Washington State. The Washington Department of Fish and Game (WDFG) and different Tribal Nations jointly manage these inland fisheries. The major Washington chum salmon fisheries occur in Puget Sound, Grays Harbor, Willapa Bay, and the North Coast. In the Puget Sound, WDFG and the Puget Sound Treaty Indian Tribes co-manage the chum salmon fishery; while in Gray Harbor, the WDFG and the Quinault Indian Nation jointly manage the fishery. The Willapa Bay fishery is mostly made up of non-tribal fishers. Like other salmon species, Washington State chum salmon fisheries are also managed using pre-season forecasts that predict the number of chum salmon returning each year (fall, winter, and summer runs). Using these estimates, managers determine the total amount of chum salmon that can be caught during the run, all while allowing for escapement goals to be met. Managers monitor the catch in real-time. To help supplement wild populations, captive rearing in hatcheries occurs throughout the salmon’s native range. Some areas like Grays Harbor include additional management measures such as targeting hatchery-raised fish (distinguishable via “markings”) to reduce pressure on natural populations.
Two US West Coast chum salmon stocks are listed as “Threatened” under the ESA: Hood Canal Summer-run Chum and Columbia River Chum – with numerous historical populations of both stocks now considered extinct. The causes of these declines vary, but can include obstruction of natural migration routes by dams, pollution, and climate change. In addition to following requirements outlined under the ESA, fishery managers may also set specific measures to help these threatened stocks recover. For instance, all fishing for chum salmon is prohibited in Hood Canal and Admiralty Inlet in the summer through early fall. Additionally, habitat restoration projects are also underway to help struggling stocks.
The Pacific Salmon Commission helps coordinate management and research of shared international chum salmon stocks between the US and Canada. The Commission is comprised of a sixteen-person body with four commissioners and four alternates representing the interest of commercial and recreational fishers as well as federal, state, and tribal governments from each country. The body was originally formed by the US and Canadian government to implement the Pacific Salmon Treaty. First ratified in 1985, the Pacific Salmon Treaty is a bilateral agreement that aims to prevent overfishing, provide optimal harvest, and ensure equal benefits of salmon production between the two countries. The US, along with Canada, Russia, Japan, and South Korea, is also a member of the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission. The primary goal of the Commission is to provide a mechanism for international cooperation of chum and other salmon species in the northern Pacific Ocean.
In addition to adhering to these commissions and treaties, chum salmon are managed by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) in Canada under: the Southern Pacific Salmon Integrated Fisheries Management Plan (IFMP) (covering waters south of Cape Caution, including the Fraser River watershed), the Northern Pacific Salmon IFMP (covering waters north of Cape Caution, including the Skeena River watershed) the Salmon Transboundary Rivers IFMP (covering the Alsek, Stikine, and Taku River watersheds), the Yukon River Chinook and Fall Chum Salmon IFMP, and the Wild Salmon Policy. Management strategies mirror those in the US; with managers conducting preseason forecast that estimate abundance, setting total allowable catch limits and escapement goals, and real-time in-season monitoring. Additional management measures include:
Time and area restrictions
Gear restrictions and the use of selective fishing techniques
Live release of weak, threatened, and/or endangered stocks
Chum salmon experience a rapid growth rate during their first few months at sea and reach maturity at around four years old. Although chum salmon has low fecundity and its spawning behavior makes it vulnerable to net fishing pressure, this is partially offset by the production of large eggs that the fish buries. That strategy, and the upwellings in springs and channels where chum spawn, helps it remain resilient.
Chum salmon have wide distribution in the Pacific, and historically have been the most abundant of the salmon along the coast. While some chum salmon populations were once overfished, most stocks are currently considered healthy.
Habitat impacts (Wild)
Chums are caught with purse seine nets, gillnets, and troll gear, all of which rarely touches the seafloor so there is little lasting physical impact on the marine environment.
Lost net gear used to catch chum salmon can pose an entanglement risk to marine animals, but a 2016 Seafood Watch report noted incentives for fishermen to retrieve them and called the issue a very low concern. Chum bycatch is considered moderate overall, and mostly consists of other salmon species.
The Alaskan chum salmon fishery has extensive management measures in place that include scientific monitoring, gear restrictions, bycatch reduction measures, and a limited entry program to control capacity. In California, Washington, Oregon and Washington, substantial management measures are also in place. A Seafood Watch report from 2016 noted that significant progress had been made in managing salmon along the U.S. West Coast. Despite the complicated presence of endangered species, Seafood Watch considered management of most of these salmon fisheries to be careful and highly effective.