If you’re unfamiliar with the various types of salmon, the term “spawning salmon” might just sound like another type. Sockeye, chum, and spawning salmon. They all sound right.
Although, that’s not what they are. Spawning salmon is more of a lifecycle event for all salmon, rather than a type of salmon. But, you may still be wondering: Can you eat spawning salmon?
The short answer is no. Or at least you shouldn’t. Spawning salmon are knocking on death’s door, as they have depleted their physical states to get back home to their rivers and streams in order to reproduce. That leaves these salmons with less flavor, more mushiness, and more risk of bacteria.
Although many fishermen are tempted to scoop up the massive salmon they find after the spawning season, it’s never a good idea to eat spawning salmon. In this article, we’ll explain why salmon return upstream, how it affects their bodies, and why you should avoid eating salmon that have already spawned.
We cover the following items in this post:
- What is Salmon Spawning?
- Can You Eat Salmon After They Spawn?
- How About The Taste of Spawning Salmon
- Why Do Salmon Change Shape When They Spawn?
- Final Thoughts: Can You Eat Spawning Salmon?
What is Salmon Spawning?
Spawning is the term used to describe when fish release their eggs and sperm into the water to reproduce.
A female will release as many eggs as she can, and a male salmon, or multiple male salmon, will then release their sperm into the water to fertilize the eggs. This type of spawning is specifically referred to as “broadcast spawning.” For salmon, this process usually occurs in late summer or early fall, after the salmon run.
After the eggs are fertilized, they hatch into tiny larval salmon called alevins. The alevins spend several months hiding in the gravel at the bottom of rivers, surviving off a yolk sac attached to their bodies.
When the yolk sac is absorbed, the young salmon, now called fry, emerge from the gravel and begin to feed on their own. After a few months of feeding and growing, the fry transforms into juvenile salmon or parr.
The parr spends the next few years living in freshwater before they reach sexual maturity and begin their journey to the ocean.
When the salmon is ready to spawn, it returns to the freshwater rivers and streams where it was born. The journey back to their birthplace is an impressive feat, as salmon must travel upstream against the current and often leap up waterfalls along the way.
After the salmon spawn, they die, and their bodies decompose, providing nutrients to the river ecosystem.
Can You Eat Salmon After They Spawn?
While it is technically possible to eat salmon after they spawn, it is not recommended. These salmon are of lesser quality overall, with an increased risk of bacteria, and often come with a mushy texture.
The return journey to their spawning grounds is an incredibly strenuous one, and the fish are often so exhausted by the time they reach their destination that their meat quality deteriorates. These fish are often referred to as “zombie salmon” due to their appearance and lack of energy.
In addition to being unappetizing, zombie salmon can also be dangerous to eat. The spawning process takes a toll on the fish’s bodies, and they often suffer from deformities, parasites, and diseases. These health problems can be passed on to humans who consume the zombie fish. Especially if the salmon has visible decay to its body already.
So, while you may be tempted to scoop up a massive salmon after the spawning season, it’s best to avoid these fish. If you’re looking for fresh salmon, it’s best to stick to fish that have been caught long before they began their journey upstream.
How About The Taste of Spawning Salmon
So, now that we know that you technically can eat spawning salmon if it has been handled correctly, it’s worth asking: Are spawning salmon good to eat? And what do they taste like?
No, they’re not good to eat. And the taste is very bad compared to the taste of fresh, healthy salmon.
The taste can be inconsistent depending on where the salmon are in their life journey, so it’s hard to provide an exact flavor comparison.
An Example: Sockeye Salmon
Let’s take a look at sockeye salmon to explain why this happens. When in the ocean, sockeye salmon enjoy a rich diet of zooplankton, larval, some miniature adult fish, and squid intermittently. This diet helps the salmon develop its own light, buttery flavor we’ve grown to enjoy.
However, once they leave the ocean, salmon stop eating and spend the remainder of their lives burning fat and muscle tissue to survive. As they enter freshwater streams, their meat slowly turns pallid, white, and sickly. It can be completely devoid of the rich flavor of saltwater salmon.
Why Do Salmon Change Shape When They Spawn?
As the salmon return to their freshwater spawning grounds, their bodies go through some drastic changes.
Some of the most noticeable changes are the fish’s body shape and color:
- Male salmon develop a kype which is when their lower jaw elongates and develops a hook-like shape. This is done to attract a spawning mate, but mainly to enable to male salmon to defend their redd and offspring from other male salmon.
- Many salmon undergo a color change so they can attract a spawning mate. With sockeye salmon, males have a stronger color change, while females are less bright.
Physical changes often happen within weeks of spawning.
Final Thoughts: Can You Eat Spawning Salmon?
Spawning salmon are an important part of the ecosystem, but they’re not meant for human consumption.
The spawning process takes a toll on the fish’s bodies, making them mushy and almost inedible due to the taste. If you’re looking for fresh salmon, it’s best to stick to fish that have been caught at sea before they return to their spawning location in rivers and streams.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Why Do Salmon Turn Red After Spawning?
Their diet is the biggest reason for this. The ocean is full of carotenoids, which are pigments produced by plants, bacteria, fungi, and algae. These carotenoids help to promote the red color in salmon.
Additionally, many believe the change in color is so salmon can attract mates for spawning. The pigmentation of their skin may have remained after spawning, even though they eventually turn white prior to dying.
Are Spawning Pink Salmon Good to Eat?
Even if a spawning salmon is pink, consuming its meat is not a good idea. The heightened risk of low-quality meat and additional bacteria isn’t worth it.
What Do You Call Two Salmon?
A pair of salmon is called a brace. Any more than four, though, is called a school of salmon.
What Is Tail Rot In Salmon?
Tail rot is a disease that can affect salmon as they travel back to their spawning grounds. The disease is caused by a bacterium, that enters the fish through their tail and eats away at their flesh.
If you see some salmon with a blackened or rotting tail, it’s best to avoid eating that fish.
Can You Fish While Salmon Are Spawning?
In some areas, it is illegal to fish for salmon while they are spawning. This is because the fish are already under a lot of stress and their bodies are weak. Ignoring these laws would put the next year’s population at risk and could lead to shortages.
If you do choose to fish for salmon during the spawning season, be sure to check your local laws and regulations first.
How Many Times Do Salmon Spawn?
- Most salmon only spawn once before dying. At least all Pacific ocean salmon do.
- However, some Atlantic salmon, roughly 5-10%, can survive the spawn and return to the ocean to repeat the process. The majority of these survivors are female.
The effort it takes to get to the spawning ground literally takes the will to live away from most salmon as they have depleted themselves entirely. They’re swimming against the current for hundreds of miles, jumping to clear small waterfalls and obstacles, and refraining from eating after spawning.
Most die within days, and some weeks, after the spawning process.
What Are Salmon Called After Spawning?
Most die, but those that survive are referred to as “kelts.” Kelts are fascinating as nobody truly knows how many times a kelt can reproduce, but the current known count is seven (7) times!