The Salmon Life Cycle

Salmon has a unique life cycle in that it does not follow the typical timeline of freshwater fish. Instead, they break their life cycle into six stages, where they undergo significant changes.

How long does salmon live? Learn the answer in our comprehensive guide.

The Salmon Life Cycle

Reproduction and Spawning

During the reproduction and spawning stage, adult salmon return from their oceanic feeding grounds to their natal freshwater habitats, driven by an instinctual homing behavior.

Once in their spawning grounds, the females excavate nests (redds) in clean gravel beds, depositing their eggs, and the males fertilize them with their sperm.

Courtship rituals and aggressive behaviors among males occur to secure mates. Both male and female salmon provide parental care by guarding the redd and eggs from predators. The success of reproduction depends on environmental factors such as water temperature and quality. After incubation, the eggs hatch into fry, continuing the cycle of life for salmon populations and ensuring the overall health of ecosystems.

Egg Development and Hatching

During the egg reproduction and hatching stage, adult female salmon lay their fertilized eggs in carefully excavated nests (redds) in clean gravel beds of freshwater rivers and streams. The eggs are then covered and protected by the female to shield them from potential predators.

The eggs incubate for up to several months, during which the water temperature and environmental conditions play a crucial role in their development. As the incubation period progresses, the eggs absorb nutrients from their yolk sacs, and eventually, the alevins, or newly hatched salmon, emerge.

Alevins stay in the gravel temporarily, living off their yolk sacs before their absorption is complete. After the yolk sac depletes, the alevins emerge from the gravel as fry.

Alevin Stage

During the Alevin stage of the salmon life cycle, the recently hatched salmon remain sheltered in their natal habitats. Alevins receive nourishment through their yolk sacs, which provide essential nutrients. Their bodies are translucent, and they lack fully developed fins, making them dependent on the protection provided by the gravel. As the yolk sac is gradually absorbed, the alevins grow stronger and more active.

Mainly, they seek shelter and conserve energy. Once the yolk sac is fully absorbed, the alevins emerge from the gravel and transition into the fry stage, where they begin to actively swim, feed on tiny aquatic organisms, and face the challenges of the outside environment.

Fry Stage

During the fry stage, the young salmon emerge from the gravel and become active swimmers, capable of exploring their freshwater environment. At this stage, the fry is still relatively small and vulnerable to predation, so they seek shelter in shallow, slow-moving waters near the riverbanks.

They feed on small aquatic insects, plankton, and other tiny organisms, gradually transitioning from their initial reliance on the yolk sac to external food sources.

Fry demonstrates schooling behavior to enhance their safety and chances of survival. As they grow and gain strength, their bodies develop the distinctive appearance of juvenile salmon, characterized by well-defined fins and scales.

Parr Stage

During the Parr stage, the salmon undergoes significant growth and development. At this point, they exhibit the classic appearance of juvenile salmon with dark vertical markings along their sides.

Parr are more robust swimmers, actively navigating freshwater habitats such as rivers and streams, and they can travel past the riverbanks. They seek out deeper and more complex habitats, including areas with submerged rocks and logs, to find shelter from predators and swift currents.

Parr primarily feeds on a diet of small fish, insects, and other aquatic organisms, contributing to their continued growth and energy reserves. As they approach the next life cycle stage, parr undergoes physiological changes in preparation for their downstream migration to the ocean, marking a critical transition in their remarkable journey.

Smolt Stage

During the Smolt stage, the salmon undergo a remarkable physiological transformation to adapt from freshwater to the saltwater environment of the ocean. This stage typically occurs when the salmon are one to three years old, depending on the species and environmental conditions.

Smolts develop a silvery coloration, and their bodies become more streamlined, preparing them for migration and survival challenges in the open sea. As they approach the transition from freshwater to saltwater, smolts gradually adjust their internal salt balance, allowing them to tolerate the higher salinity levels of the ocean.

Smolts instinctively migrate toward the ocean in response to changing environmental cues, such as photoperiod and water temperature. The journey can be perilous as they navigate through rivers, estuaries, and coastal waters, facing predators and human-made obstacles such as dams.

Marine Migration and Adult Feeding

During the migration and adult feeding stage, adult salmon have successfully returned from the ocean to their natal freshwater habitats to spawn.

After spawning, many salmon species, like Pacific salmon, begin the final phase of their life cycle, where they face the challenging journey back to the ocean. This downstream migration takes them through rivers, estuaries, and coastal waters, covering long distances.

Upon reaching the ocean, adult salmon adapt to the marine environment and embark on extensive oceanic migrations, covering vast distances in search of rich feeding grounds.

In the ocean, they feed voraciously on a diet of plankton, small fish, and other marine organisms, building up energy reserves for their eventual return to their natal freshwater habitats in future spawning cycles.

salmon life cycle

Salmon Life Cycle FAQs

How long does it take for a salmon to complete its life cycle?

The time it takes for a salmon to complete its life cycle varies depending on the species and environmental conditions. In general, the complete life cycle of salmon can range from one to seven years. Here is a rough breakdown of the time frames for some common salmon species:

Throughout these years, salmon go through various stages, including spawning, egg development, hatching, alevin, fry, parr, smolt, adult migration, and spawning again. The exact duration of each stage may vary based on factors such as species, environmental conditions, and availability of food resources.

Do all salmon species follow the same life cycle?

No, not all salmon species follow the same life cycle. While most salmon species share common stages such as spawning, egg development, hatching, alevin, fry, parr, smolt, adult migration, and spawning again, variations in the timing, duration, and specific behaviors of each stage exist among different species.

What are the major challenges and threats salmon face during their life cycle?

During their upstream migration to spawn, salmon encounter obstacles like dams, culverts, and other barriers that impede their progress. Pollution, habitat degradation, and reduced water quality in freshwater habitats can negatively impact their survival and reproduction. Overfishing, climate change, and competition with non-native species in the ocean further stress salmon populations, affecting their ability to complete their life cycle successfully.

What is the survival rate of salmon from the egg to the adult stage?

Generally, the survival rate is quite low, with only a small percentage of eggs reaching adulthood. In some wild salmon populations, the survival rate from eggs to adults may range from 1% to 5%. Various factors such as predation, habitat degradation, pollution, and human activities like fishing and dam construction can negatively impact these rates.


Compared to freshwater fish, salmon have complex life cycles in six stages. They are anadromous, spending their entire lives in the ocean before migrating to rivers and streams to spawn. Thus, anglers and fishmongers must familiarize themselves with these patterns to get the best, freshest catch.

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