About the Species
Only farm-raised Atlantic salmon are found in U.S. seafood markets.
Commercial and recreational fishing for Atlantic salmon in the United States is prohibited. In addition, the Gulf of Maine distinct population segment (DPS) of Atlantic salmon are protected under the Endangered Species Act. Learn more about protected Atlantic salmon.
- The U.S. Atlantic Salmon Assessment Committee, a team of state and federal biologists, collects data on Atlantic salmon throughout New England and assesses the species’ population status. According to the 2020 stock assessment Atlantic salmon are overfished and returns remain at historically low levels. Summary stock assessment information can be found on Stock SMART.
- Scientists determine the population status by counting the number of adults that return to spawn, either directly at traps and weirs or indirectly using nest surveys and modeling.
- Atlantic salmon stocks began to decline in the mid-1800s due to a number of factors including habitat destruction and historic overfishing.
- Atlantic salmon have a spindle-like body shape – rounded, broad in the middle, and tapered at each end. The shape is somewhat flattened toward the sides, which is typical of salmon species.
- The head is relatively small, about one-fifth of the body length. The underside paired fins are prominent, especially on juveniles.
- Spawning adults darken to a bronze color after entering freshwater and darken further after they spawn. When spawning has been completed, they are often referred to as kelts or black salmon. Their silver color returns after they re-enter the sea.
- Atlantic salmon are anadromous – they leave the ocean to return to freshwater streams and rivers to breed.
- Females lay an average of 7,500 eggs in gravel nests, called redds.
- Eggs incubate slowly due to cold winter water temperatures. About 9 to 20 percent of the eggs survive to the fry stage.
- Fry remain buried in the gravel for about 6 weeks and emerge in mid-May.
- They quickly disperse from the redds and develop camouflaging stripes along their sides, entering the parr stage.
- Parr eventually undergo a physiological transformation called smoltification that prepares them for life in a marine habitat. During smoltification, fish imprint on the chemical nature of the stream or river to enable them to find their way back to where they were born. After smoltfication is complete in the spring, smolts migrate to the ocean to grow, feed, and mature.
- Atlantic salmon growth rates are variable and depend on several factors including season, habitat quality, age, sex, and population density.
- They grow much faster in saltwater than in freshwater. After 2 years at sea, adult salmon can grow to an average length of 28 to 30 inches and weight of 8 to 12 pounds.
- Unlike the Pacific salmon species, Atlantic salmon do not die after spawning, and adults can repeat the breeding cycle. They live for 4 to 6 years.
- Juvenile Atlantic salmon mostly prey on invertebrates and terrestrial insects while in freshwater and on amphipods (small, shrimp-like crustaceans), krill, and fishes while at sea.
- Larger adult Atlantic salmon mainly prey on fish such as Atlantic herring, alewife, rainbow smelt, capelin, mummichogs, sand lances, flatfish, and small Atlantic mackerel.
- Birds, marine mammals, and fish prey on Atlantic salmon.
Where They Live
- Atlantic salmon are the only salmon native to the Atlantic Ocean.
- There are three groups of wild Atlantic salmon: North American, European, and Baltic. The North American group, including the Canadian and U.S. populations, was historically found from northern Quebec southeast to Newfoundland and southwest to Long Island Sound.
- In the United States, Atlantic salmon were once native to almost every river north of the Hudson River. Due to the effects of industrial and agricultural development (including habitat destruction, dams, and historic overfishing), most populations native to New England were eradicated. Now, the only native populations of Atlantic salmon in the United States are found in Maine.
- NOAA Fisheries, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the New England Fishery Management Council, and the State of Maine manage Atlantic salmon.
- Managed under the Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Salmon:
- Prohibits possession of wild Atlantic salmon and any directed or incidental Atlantic salmon catch in federal waters.
- All Atlantic salmon caught incidentally in other fisheries must be released in a manner that ensures maximum probability of survival. This protects Atlantic salmon in U.S. marine waters and complements management in state-managed riverine and coastal waters.
- In 2000, NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Gulf of Maine distinct population segment of Atlantic salmon as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The two agencies are jointly responsible for the recovery of this endangered population of Atlantic salmon.
- In December 2005, the agencies, in coordination with the State of Maine, finalized the Recovery Plan for the Gulf of Maine distinct population segment. This plan identifies recovery actions needed to halt the decline of the species and lays out a process to minimize threats.
- In June 2009, they extended Endangered Species Act protection to more Atlantic salmon, adding fish in the Penobscot, Kennebec, and Androscoggin rivers and their tributaries to the endangered Gulf of Maine distinct population segment. Protection also applies wherever these fish are found, including these rivers’ estuaries and marine environment.
- A new recovery plan is being developed to reflect the expanded range of endangered salmon and the designation of their critical habitat (the area needed to support the fish population’s survival and recovery).
- In 2015, NOAA Fisheries announced a new program to focus and redouble our efforts to protect eight species that are currently among the most at risk of extinction in the near future. This 5-year action plan focuses on priority actions for Atlantic salmon. Species in the Spotlight
- International management:
- Because Atlantic salmon migrate all along the North American coast, the United States joined with other North Atlantic nations in 1984 to form the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization (NASCO) to cooperatively manage Atlantic salmon stocks through conservation, restoration, and enhancement programs.
- The United States’ participation in NASCO supports the long-term commitment by the states and federal government to rehabilitate and restore U.S. Atlantic salmon stocks.
- The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) is the official research arm of NASCO. ICES provides scientific advice to NASCO members to inform science-based management recommendations for the conservation of North Atlantic salmon stocks.
- Substantial efforts are ongoing to restore wild Atlantic salmon and their habitat. These include improving fish passage by removing or modifying dams so salmon can reach freshwater spawning and rearing areas critical to their survival, understanding and improving historically low salmon survival in the ocean, and supplementing wild populations with hatchery-raised Atlantic salmon.
- Atlantic salmon have been raised in hatcheries since 1864 to enhance wild populations. Today, these hatcheries help to prevent further decline of Atlantic salmon and subsequently prevent their extinction.
- In the late 1970s, commercial aquaculture ventures started rearing Atlantic salmon in Maine. See Atlantic Salmon – Farmed for more information.
- Commercial fishery:
- There is no commercial catch of wild Atlantic salmon in the United States.
- Atlantic salmon were a highly prized game and food fish.
- They were caught by Native Americans before the first settlers arrived, and commercial fisheries for Atlantic salmon started in Maine during the 1600s.
- Around the time of the American Revolution, weirs (an enclosure of stakes set in a stream as a trap for fish) became the gear of choice in U.S. Atlantic salmon commercial fisheries and were modified as more effective materials and designs became available.
- Catches in Maine exceeded 90 metric tons in the late 1800s and 45 metric tons in some years during the early 1900s.
- Recreational fishery:
- Recreational fishermen have reportedly been angling for Atlantic salmon since 1832, when the first Atlantic salmon caught on rod-and-reel gear was captured in the Dennys River in Maine.
- Recreational fisheries are closed in the United States, with the exception of some landlocked fisheries for Atlantic salmon in New Hampshire, where fish retired from hatchery broodstock are released for angling.
Recreational Fishing Regulations
Commercial Fishing Regulations
Subsistence Fishing Regulations
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Data & Maps
Tracks the implementation of recovery actions from Endangered Species Act (ESA) recovery plans.