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Aquaculture: More Info

Wild Atlantic Salmon

Illustration of Wild Atlantic Salmon

The wild Atlantic salmon travels throughout the North Atlantic Ocean. It's an anadromous fish - spawning in fresh water but spending much of its life at sea.

The Atlantic salmon's range historically spanned both sides of the North Atlantic from northern Quebec to Lake Ontario and southward to New England in North America, and from Russia's White Sea to Portugal on the European coast.

Although many of the Atlantic salmon's runs are now reduced or extinct, it can still be found in the rivers of Ireland, Great Britain, Canada, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, France, Spain, Canada and Maine.

National Geographic Salmon map - click to open full size map in new window

A wild Atlantic salmon undergoes many changes during its life. Pea-sized orange eggs are deposited in riverbeds in autumn. Early the next spring, thousands of tiny Atlantic salmon alevin emerge. Less than an inch long, these alevin live off an attached yolk sac and hide from predators in the gravel of the streambed. When the yolk sac is nearly gone, the young fish wriggle up into the water. They are called fry until they are about two to three inches long.

In the parr stage, Atlantic salmon get vertical markings on their flank, which act as camouflage. Parr remain in the river for two to six years, depending on temperatures and food supply.

When par reach five to nine inches in length, they become a smolt. Parr marks are replaced by a silvery coat for better camouflage at sea. Their internal systems adapt for saltwater life, and the fish leave their streams for ocean feeding grounds.

Salmon from both sides of the Atlantic rendezvous in the waters off southwestern Greenland. A few travel to lesser-known oceanic or coastal feeding areas. They grow rapidly on a diet of small crustaceans and fish.

After one or more years at sea, Atlantic salmon return to their home rivers in an extraordinary journey that may span more than 2,500 miles of open ocean. If they return after one winter at sea, they are called grilse.

Entering the river between April and November, they navigate upstream, leaping obstructions up to 10 feet high to spawn in shallow tributaries in late fall.

Landlocked Atlantic salmon

Some Atlantic salmon populations never go to sea, inhabiting lake and river systems in areas bordering the North Atlantic. These fish follow a cycle similar to sea-run salmon, except that they migrate between deep-lake feeding areas and spawning grounds along shorelines or in tributaries.

The Population of Atlantic salmon

The number of wild Atlantic salmon have dropped precipitously in the past half century due to environmental pressures and over-fishing on the high seas. Between 1994 and 1999, the number of adult fish available to return to North American rivers is estimated to have gone from approximately 200,000 to 80,000.

Taxonomy of Atlantic salmon

Phylum: Chordata (the Chordates)
Class: Osteichthyes (the Bony Fishes)
Order: Salmoniformes
Family: Salmonidae
Genus: Salmo
Species: Salmo salar

Common Names

Atlantic salmon, lake Atlantic salmon, sebago, ouananiche, landlocked salmon, black salmon, grilse, kelt, spink, racer, smolt, and parr.

Names in a Variety of Languages

Atlantic salmon (English)
saumon atlantique (French)
Lachs (German)
salmones (Spanish)
braddan and bradan (Gaelic)
bratan (Early Irish)
iach (ancient Celtic)
laks (Norway)
lax (Sweden)

Courtesy Atlantic Salmon Federation.

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National Science Foundation Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Maine Forest Products Council Irving Woodlands, LLC Desiree Carlson, M.D. More Connected. More Maine.

Major funding is provided by the National Science Foundation.
Additional funding is provided by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, Maine Forest Products Council, Irving Woodlands LLC., Desiree Carlson, M.D., and gifts to More Connected. More Maine, The Campaign for Maine Public Broadcasting Network's Programming.

A list of other funders includes:
The Davis Family Foundation, Margaret E. Burnham Charitable Trust, and Lincoln Ladd.

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