Northwesterners: Can You Name That Salmon?

May 29, 2014

Can you identify this salmon? Photographer James Brooks identified this as a ripened silver salmon. Here, an Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist holds it out for elementary school students to touch.
Can you identify this salmon? Photographer James Brooks identified this as a ripened silver salmon. Here, an Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist holds it out for elementary school students to touch.
Credit Flickr Photo/James Brooks

The other day I shared a table with some fishermen who were sure they were eating king salmon. The choice made sense: It's king season. King is very fatty, therefore delicious. And we were at a celebration at Fishermen's Terminal. So it had to be what some Canadians call Tyee, the chief of salmon, the king.

The fish had been smoked just a stone's throw away from the party tent. It was delicious, so I had to know. When I first called the Port, they told me it was coho. When I called a second time, they corrected themselves. That was not coho. That was silver. Different names for the same fish! That's the problem with fish in this town: They have too many names.

Determined to straighten this out, I turned to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

king = chinook Glorious and fatty, flesh a lighter color than sockeye. We are eating it now, with the Alaska fishing fleet still at Fishermen’s Terminal, because gillnetters have been working the Copper River. I'm told they use a fine net that catches on the fishes' gills. No wonder the fish look so surprised.

Sockeye, or red salmon.
Sockeye, or red salmon.
Credit Alaska Department Of Fish And Game Photo

sockeye = red Lighter in fat and darker in color than king. This time of the year, they're caught alongside the kings, but only the sockeye are trumpeted at grocery stores as "Copper River Salmon."

coho = silver Silver-skinned and what I think of as salmon-red on the inside. The choice for a celebration dinner, I suspect, because they take smoke so well. Not as highly prized as king and sockeye, but you're living the dream if you're eating one.

Now, the denizens of the canned food section.

Coho, or silver (the same salmon above)
Coho, or silver (the same salmon above)
Credit Alaska Department Of Fish And Game Photo

pink = humpy The cans say pink, the fishermen say humpy or humpback. One fisherman allowed that the hump the fish gets can look a little freakish. The seiners of Fishermen’s Terminal catch a lot of these and chum (see below), with their long, wide nets shaped like purses.

chum = dog  But I've noticed the cans say keta. Keta is the official species name. It also sounds more fun to eat.

All the above are of the genus Oncorhynchus, which they do not share with Atlantic salmon. As it should be.