Pink salmon is the smallest wild Pacific salmon and its flesh is pale pink. This salmon is mild-flavored, softer than most salmon, has a small flake and contains a relatively low amount of oil. Look for pink salmon with firm meat that has minimal scale loss and no vertical bars of watermarks that indicate the fish has neared fresh water. Pink salmon is graded 2-4, 4-6, 6-9, and 9 up. Pink salmon is mostly sold frozen or canned and is increasingly sold in value-added products like salmon burgers and marinated steaks. A very small quantity is sold fresh, headed and gutted from July through August as is high quality whole pink salmon caught by trollers and frozen at sea. Processors who do both freezing and canning tend to only freeze the highest quality pink salmon so some buyers suggest purchasing from them. Buyers suggest learning about specific salmon species’ runs in order to find the best quality salmon since there are natural variations among them.
Key sustainability sourcing notes for pink salmon based on landings data from 2016-2017 and based on the most recent MSC certifications as of June, 2019:
~50% of global landings of pink salmon are MSC-certified (100% of Alaska and Canada, ~25% of Russian landings)
<1% of global pink salmon meets a Seafood Watch "Good Alternative (yellow)" rating (from Puget Sound, Washington)
~50% of global pink salmon is unrated
Landings from the two-year period of 2016-2017 increased ~3% compared to the two-year period of 2014-2015 and decreased ~20% from the two-year period 2012-2013
Pink salmon are the smallest of the North American Pacific salmon, growing to between 20 to 25 inches (50 cm to 64 cm) in length and weighing between three to five pounds. They are distinguishable from other salmon by their general coloring and slender form, and large dark oval spots found on their back. Breeding males become red and dark on the back, with brown-green blotches on their sides. They also develop a hump, giving them the nickname “humpback” or “humpy” salmon.
Like other salmon species, pink salmon are anadromous, meaning they hatch in freshwater streams and rivers, then migrate to saltwater environments to feed and grow. Unlike coho, Chinook, or sockeye salmon, young pink salmon do not spend an extended period in freshwater and migrate soon after they are born. They are amongst the fastest growing of the Pacific salmon species, feeding voraciously and growing rapidly once they reach the ocean.
Southern and northern stocks alternate spawning every other year, with an odd-year dominant cycle in the north. Mature pink salmon return to their spawning waters about one to two years after feeding and growing in the ocean, usually between August and October. Females construct nests, known as redds, in the riverbed by digging a shallow hole with their body and tail. They can lay between 1200 and 1900 eggs, depositing them into the redds, where the males can then fertilize them. All pink salmon die after spawning, but females stay and defend their redds from other females until she dies, usually within two weeks. 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.
Pink salmon feed on small crustaceans, zooplankton, squid, and small fish. In fresh water, other fish, birds, and small mammals prey upon pink salmon eggs, alevins, and fry. Bears, wolves, river otters, and bald eagles occasionally eat adults. In the ocean, fish and coastal seabirds prey upon pink salmon fry and juveniles. Marine mammals, sharks, and other fish eat adults.
Pink salmon are found along the Pacific coast of North America from Alaska to the Puget Sound in Washington state. Their historical North American range may have extended to California; however, they do not currently reproduce in significant quantities south of the Puget Sound. Across the Pacific, they range from the Bering and Okhotsk Seas in Russia south to Hokkaido, Japan. Pink salmon are anadromous and begin life in freshwater streams and rivers. Females dig nests called “redds” in which they will deposit their eggs. These may be located near riffles with clean gravel or along borders between pools and riffles in shallow water with moderate to fast currents. Unlike some other Pacific salmon species, pink salmon have a relatively short freshwater residency and upon emergence, the salmon fry will immediately migrate to the sea. They will spend their first few weeks in estuaries, wetlands, and nearshore zones in large schools feeding along the shoreline. During this time, they will grow extensively and after two to three months, will enter the open ocean. Before returning to freshwater to spawn in 14 to 16 months, pink salmon will feed, mature, and conduct extensive migrations in the North Pacific. When they are ready to spawn, pink salmon will return to freshwater and migrate upstream. Oftentimes, pink salmon will return to the stream and rivers of their birth, although compared to other salmon species, they tend to have higher straying rates and this may not always be the case. While some adults conduct extensive upstream spawning migrations, most generally spawn closer to tidewaters – usually within 30 miles of a river mouth. All adults will die after spawning.
Science & Management
The Auke Bay Laboratories’ Salmon Ocean Ecology and Bycatch Analysis (SOEBA) program studies the ecological process that drive the productivity of anadromous fish in the various ecosystems within the Gulf of Alaska and 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 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
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.
NOAA Fisheries and the North Pacific Fishery Management Council manage the pink salmon fishery in Alaska under the Fishery Management Plan (FMP) for Salmon Fisheries in the EEZ off the Coast of Alaska. Pink salmon is the most abundant Pacific salmon species with Alaska accounting for the majority of the US commercial harvest. 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 salmon fisheries in Alaska by setting escapement goals. These goals are in place to ensure that enough salmon escape the fishery and can 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 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.
While most US pink salmon landings occur in Alaska, there are commercial fisheries for pink salmon in Washington state. In Washington, a variety of federal, state, and tribal authorities manage pink salmon fisheries depending on the location of the fishery. Washington’s ocean salmon fisheries are managed by NOAA Fisheries and the Pacific Fisheries Management Council (PFMC) under the Pacific Coast Salmon Plan. The PFMC reviews this plan annually by comparing the reports of the previous fishing season to the estimated abundance for the current year. Based on these reports a management plan is recommended by the PFMC for the upcoming fishing season – with final implementation to be carried out by NOAA Fisheries. State and tribal managers also use these recommendations to shape their own policies for inland fisheries – with these policies then being carried out by the tribes or the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife in close coordination with the PFMC. Overall, specific management measures can vary by year depending on the season's estimated abundance, but generally include:
Time and area restrictions
Establishing season length
The overall goal of these measures is to ensure that fishers can harvest the maximum amount of pink salmon the fishery can support while preventing the overharvesting of the species and ensuring populations with low abundance can rebuild. Additionally, the FMP identifies essential fish habitats and contains allocation provisions to ensure salmon resources are shared relatively fairly among the user groups. In Washington, specifically the Puget Sound, abundance and harvest are higher during odd-numbered years. As of 2016, Puget Sound pink salmon are not overfished.
Management of pink salmon fisheries must also comply with measures outlined in the US Endangered Species Act (ESA) as well as the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). Many salmon populations are considered depressed – with some salmon populations considered to be “Threatened” or “Endangered” under the ESA and COSEWIC. The causes of these declines vary – but can include obstruction of natural migration routes by dams, pollution, and climate change. As of 2017, no US pink salmon stocks are listed under the ESA and no Canadian stocks are listed under COSEWIC. While captive rearing in hatcheries helps supplement some wild salmon populations, this is not the case for pink salmon as hatchery production is relatively small.
The Pacific Salmon Commission helps coordinate management and research of shared international pink 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 pink and other salmon species in the northern Pacific Ocean.
In addition to adhering to these commissions and treaties, pink 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), and the Wild Salmon Policy. Pink salmon are the most abundant salmon species in Canadian waters and there are an estimated 2220 unique stocks in British Columbia. Management strategies mirror those in the US, with managers conducting preseason forecast which 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
Pink salmon are relatively fast-growing, short-lived fish that reaches maturity at two years. Although this 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 helps the salmon stay resilient.
The abundance of pink salmon, which are found on both sides of the North Pacific, is very difficult to forecast since they have extremely variable mortality and spend so little time in the ocean, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. Despite this, pink salmon populations are abundant in Alaska and at generally healthy levels further south. A Seafood Watch report from 2016 found that pink salmon abundance on the U.S. West Coast was a low concern.
Habitat impacts (Wild)
Pink salmon are mainly caught with purse seines and gillnets, which usually don’t touch the seafloor so the gear impacts on the ocean bottom are minimal. A small number of pink salmon are caught using beach seines or troll gear, but these methods cause little impact in Alaska.
Bycatch in the pink salmon fishery mainly consists of other fish species and there is incidental catch of marine mammals and some endangered seabirds. Overall bycatch is thought to be low, but very little quantitative information is available.
The salmon fisheries in Alaska have substantial management measures in place that include scientific monitoring, gear restrictions, bycatch reduction measures, and a limited entry program to control capacity. Since smaller pink salmon amounts are caught in Washington, abundance is scientifically monitored there to help set harvest limits. 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.