All About Wild Sockeye Salmon

Wild Alaska Salmon Drawing

Sockeye salmon. Photo Credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service

Wild Sockeye Salmon

By Dale Mayo, September 8, 2022

The wild sockeye salmon population is having a banner year. In a record-breaking surge this summer, more than 78 million sockeye salmon returned to Bristol Bay, Alaska, the world’s largest source of wild sockeye salmon. 1 An average run for decades was 38 million.Sockeye Salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka) (Facts 3, 4) Among the smaller species: 18-31 inches long, 4-15 pounds. They have silver sides, a white belly, and a metallic green-blue top, which is why they’re sometimes called “blueback”. When they swim upriver to spawn, their bodies turn red and their heads turn greenish, which gives them the nickname “red.”

Sockeye salmon are prized for their firm, bright-orange flesh, which comes from eating plankton and krill they eat in the ocean. After 1-4 years in the sea, they enter freshwater systems to spawn, guided to their home stream by olfactory cues. All Pacific salmon die within a few weeks after spawning. Some sockeye salmon, kokanee, are landlocked in freshwater where they rarely grow over 14 inches long.

Bristol Bay

Kaskanak Creek in the Kvichak watershed of Alaska

View of Kaskanak Creek in the Kvichak watershed, part of the Bristol Bay watershed. US EPA

Bristol Bay is a sustainably managed fishery, where the watershed provides habitat for five species of

Pacific salmon, including almost half the world’s sockeye, and many other species of wildlife. Because no hatchery fish are raised or released in the watershed, all salmon populations are wild. More than 30 Alaska Native tribes rely on Bristol Bay. The wild salmon provides food security locally and supports thousands of jobs. One tremendous threat to Bristol Bay - and all who live there or depend on it - is a proposed open-pit copper and gold mine, the Pebble Mine, which would cause “unavoidable adverse impacts.” While the Army Corps of Engineers denied the Pebble Mine's Clean Water Act permit application, the mine's backers have challenged that denial, and the Corps' decision leaves the door open for future projects.

The Environmental Protection Agency can use its veto authority under the Clean Water Act to prohibit and restrict the use of certain waters in the Bristol Bay watershed as disposal sites for the discharge of dredged or fill material associated with mining the Pebble Deposit. If finalized, this would help protect the Bristol Bay watershed’s rivers, streams, and wetlands support the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery and a subsistence-based way of life that has sustained Alaska Native communities for millennia. 5 Ways to help - stay informed, sign the petitions, and/or donate.


Organizations trying to protect Bristol Bay:          

  •  American Rivers
  • Bristol Bay Defense Fund
  • Earthjustice
  • EarthworksInletkeeper
  • Natural Resources Defense Council
  • Save Bristol Bay
  • Sierra ClubTrout Unlimited
  • United Tribes of Bristol Bay
  • Wild Salmon Center
  • World Wildlife Fund

Sockeye Salmon: Healthy and Tasty

Alaska sockeye salmon is a healthy source of vitamins and minerals that help your body function properly. High in protein (for muscle growth) and omega-3 fatty acids (good for brain and heart health, healthy joints and skin), sockeye salmon also provides antioxidants (taurine, vitamin B12 for the heart health) and selenium (good for brain health and immune system). U.S. wild-caught sockeye salmon is also, a smart seafood choice because it is sustainably managed and responsibly harvested under the U.S. regulations (which makes it better for the environment). 6

Grizzly bear eating Alaska Sockeye Salmon

Mother and cub share breakfast. by USFWSAlaska

Sockeye salmon recipes range from tartare to grilled with many variations. 7 No matter which recipe you choose, be sure to prepare your fish safely: move it from its packaging into a plastic bag and leave it in the refrigerator to thaw for about 6 hours. If you’re in a hurry, put the fish into a non-vacuum sealed bag and leave it in cool water for half an hour to an hour. Pat the salmon dry. Cook salmon with the skin on to keep it juicy. Do not overcook sockeye salmon as it will become very dry. Three simple and simply delicious ways to cook sockeye salmon are baking, pan-searing, and grilling.

Baked sockeye salmon:

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Season fillets with salt and pepper.

2. Place salmon skin-side down on an oven-safe pan. You can bake plain or drizzle with olive oil and a squeeze of lemon or lemon slices on top. Bake at 350°F for 10-12 minutes or until internal temperature reaches 125°F for medium and 145°F for well done. Note: The sockeye salmon is so high in Omega 3 fatty acids

Pan-seared sockeye salmon:

1. Season fillets with salt and pepper. Heat (on medium-high) 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet.

2. When oil is shimmering, place salmon skin-side up in the pan.

3. Cook for 4-5 minutes. Flip the fillets and lower the burner to medium. Cook for another 4-5 minutes until the internal temperature reaches 145°F.

Lemon-garlic cedar plank sockeye salmon:

  1. Soak cedar planks in water for an hour or two.
  2. For the marinade: combine 2 tablespoons of olive oil, 1 tablespoon of stone ground mustard, 1 tablespoon of lemon zest, 2 teaspoons of finely chopped rosemary, 2 cloves of garlic (minced), ½ teaspoon of salt, and ¼ teaspoon of pepper in a 9 x 9 baking dish and mix well. Roll the salmon in the marinade to coat it evenly, cover the dish and refrigerate for 30 minutes (or more).
  3. Preheat the grill to medium-high heat (400°F to 450°F). When ready to grill, pat the soaked cedar planks
  4. Dry and place the marinated salmon filets on top. Place the planks on the heated grill grates and cover them.
  5. Allow the filets to cook for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the salmon reaches an internal temperature of 145˚F.
  6. Serve with fresh lemon wedges.

View the full lemon-garlic cedar plank recipe here


  1. Studies show that sockeye salmon have bigger runs when the Bering Sea, where they spend much of their lives, is a few degrees warmer than usual (as seen in 2018, 2019, and 2021). At the same time, the average sockeye fish size has dropped more than 15% and the number of king (Chinook) and chum salmon along the Yukon River are critically low. Bernton, Hal (2022). The salmon mystery of Bristol Bay. Anchorage Daily News, August 28, 2022.
  7. Consuming raw or undercooked meats, poultry, seafood, shellfish, or eggs may increase your risk of food-borne illness, especially if you have a certain medical condition. The FDA recommends an internal temperature of 145°F for cooked fish.
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