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Pacific salmon differences

Pacific salmon – the difference between pinks, silvers and reds 3 minutes

  Aug 22, 2018

With a distinct colour variance ranging from dusty pink to bright apricot orange, salmon encompasses a wide variety of species and production methods. Commercially, the global salmon trade is dominated by wild Pacific and farmed Atlantic fish, both of which are supplied by Pittman Seafoods.

While the two million tonnes of Atlantic salmon produced annually account for a large part of aquaculture’s contribution to the global salmonid supply, wild Pacific salmon – totalling one million tonnes – plays an important part too. Pacific salmon are also raised in aquaculture systems but on a much smaller scale.


Pacific salmon live in the ocean but are born and spawn in freshwater rivers and streams. The Pacific Ocean is home to six types of wild salmon, with king, pink, chum, sockeye and coho being the focus of commercial catchers. Last year, more than half (53%) of the overall catch was harvested in the United States. Russia (38%) had the second largest catch, followed by Japan (8%), Canada (1%) and South Korea (less than 1%).

Of the 487,000 tonnes caught by Americans in 2016 (the most recent year documented by the National Marine Fisheries Service), Alaska accounted for the lion’s share with 477,000 tonnes. Fishermen in Washington and Oregon contributed a further 10,000 tonnes. These are some of the most iconic and valuable fisheries in the United States. As such, much of this salmon is traditionally sold and consumed domestically, but there are also significant exports to Europe and other markets. Alaska’s 2017 harvest of 224 million salmon was valued at nearly $680 million at the docks.


Pacific salmon species are very closely related to one another, but each has a different flavour and texture profile. They also all have at least two names as well as a Latin name.

King/Chinook (Oncorhynchus tschawytscha) – The biggest and most highly prized Pacific salmon species. This fish has a very high fat content and corresponding rich flesh that ranges from white to a deep red colour. Stocks originate in rivers from central California to northwest Alaska and are harvested in ocean and river habitats.

Sockeye/Red (Oncorhynchus nerka) – Noted for the species’ bright red-orange flesh and deep rich flavour. This variety is known as “reds” (do you mean ‘‘red’’?) due to their dark flesh colour and because they turn from bright silver to deep red as they move upstream to spawn. This is the most valuable US salmon species, the majority of which is caught in Alaska.

Coho/Silver (Oncorhynchus kisutch) – Coho are sometimes called silver salmon or “silvers” (do you mean ‘‘silver’’?)  due to their particularly silvery skin. They have bright red flesh and a slightly more delicate texture than king salmon but a similar flavour. Alaska fisheries supply the majority of coho to the global market.

Pink/Humpback (Oncorhynchus gorbusha) – These have very light coloured and flavoured flesh and a low fat content. Pink salmon are often canned, but are also sold fresh, frozen, and smoked. They are sometimes called humpback salmon or “humpies” because of the distinctive hump they develop on their back when they spawn.

Chum/Keta/Dog (Oncorhynchus keta) – Chum are also called dog salmon because of their protruding, dog-like teeth, while keta comes from its species name. They have pale to medium-coloured flesh and a lower fat content than other salmon. Chum are less oily salmon, mainly caught in Alaska. They are usually canned or sold frozen


Of the Pacific varieties, pink salmon are the smallest (three to five pounds) and the most abundant, accounting for almost half the salmon harvested in the Pacific region, followed by chum at 29%, sockeye 19%, coho 3% and king 1%. Consequently, pinks are Pittman’s main wild salmon species in terms of volume.

In North America, pinks are found from Alaska to Puget Sound in Washington State, but the largest catches are in Alaska, where the species account for almost half the salmon harvested in the state’s fisheries. Last year, Alaska caught more than 140 million of them. There are also significant pink catches in Russia and North Korea.


Alaska’s salmon fishery management ranks among the best in the world and the state has many Category-A fisheries. The state’s recognised strengths include its data transparency, escapement monitoring and clear prioritisation of wild stocks in legislation.

The entire Alaska salmon fishery is certified to the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) Fisheries Standard. It was first awarded the certification in 2000. A number of salmon fisheries in Russia and British Columbia are also certified to the standard.

Because they are wild fisheries, salmon catch levels can fluctuate considerably from season to season. For the 2018 season, that’s now well underway, the Alaska Department of Fish & Game estimates the total salmon catch will reach 149 million fish, down 34% from last year’s bumper take of 226 million fish. This shortfall is largely attributed to a forecasted pink harvest of just over 70 million, which would be half of last year’s total.

Additionally, the projected state wide sockeye salmon harvest is expected to be about 1.8 million fish down on 2017’s harvest of 52 million. Alaska’s chum catch is estimated at 21 million (down four million from last year), while the coho harvest is expected to rise by 600,000 fish to nearly six million. For Chinook salmon, a catch of 99,000 is projected in areas outside of southeast Alaska, where the numbers are determined through a treaty with neighbouring Canada.