Sockeye Salmon | Oceana Canada

Canadian Marine Life Encyclopedia

Sockeye Salmon

Oncorhynchus nerka

Also known as

Blueback, Kennerly’s salmon, kokanee, little redfish, pygmy salmon, silver trout


Throughout the North Pacific Ocean


Rivers and coastal seas

Feeding Habits

Active predator

Conservation Status



Order Salmoniformes (salmons); Family Salmonide (salmons, trouts & chars)


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The word sockeye comes from the Coast Salish name “sukkai,” once commonly used in southwestern British Columbia. It translates roughly to “fish of fishes.” Sockeye are the most iconic and sought after salmon species in British Columbia due to their bright red colour and emerald-green head during spawning, and their rich, bright pink, oily flesh. The rich colour and oil content of sockeye is thought to be because of their diet, which is high in zooplankton and shrimp. 

Sockeye salmon, like all salmonids, have a complex life cycle that involves life stages in both freshwater and marine environments. When Sockeye salmon reach sexual maturity at around four to five years old, they will begin a long migration to spawn, traveling from the ocean back to the river systems that they were born in. Depending on the population, adults will head inland to spawn at different periods of the year. Populations found further south migrate from June to September, and those found further north migrate from September to December. 

Once inland, females will select sites they deem appropriate to “dig” out nests in the gravel with their tails, called “redds.” Males will then swim over the redds and release sperm to fertilize the eggs, after which the female will immediately bury the eggs in the gravel. The eggs develop over the winter, with the larvae, also known as “fry,” emerging in the following spring. The fry will undergo several “smolts,” or physiological adaptations, in the freshwater environment before they reach their adult form and head back out to the ocean at around two years of age. 

Although the life cycle of Sockeye salmon is the same across all populations, the timing of each of these stages varies with separate spawning population, based on the conditions of the spawning site and corresponding temperature, hydrography (physical features of the water body), and biological features of the area. While in the marine environment, adults feed on zooplankton, insects and most fish that are smaller than them.