Atlantic salmon drawing.
Atlantic salmon drawing.
Courtesy: Maine Department of Marine Resources

Atlantic Salmon (Salmo salar)

Alternate common names: Sea Salmon, Black Salmon.
Color: Silvery body with some dark crosses and spots on the head, body, and fins. When they are in fresh water, juveniles have 10 or 11 dark crossbars alternating with bright red spots.
Size: 2 to 3 feet long; up to 10 pounds.
Habitat: Freshwater rivers, streams, lakes, open bay, coastal waters.
Seasonal appearance: Migrate into Narragansett Bay during spring and summer.


The Atlantic salmon is a slender and graceful fish whose Latin name means "the leaper." Its distinctive characteristics make the Atlantic salmon easy to recognize. It has a small head, blunt nose, small eyes, and a mouth that gapes back below its eye. The mouth contains a row of stout, conical teeth. Atlantic salmon have large scales and slightly forked caudal fins. One distinguishing characteristic of Atlantic salmon is the presence of an adipose fin, a feature present in all species of trout.

Life History and Behavior

The Atlantic salmon is an anadromous fish that lives in salt water as an adult but migrates into fresh water in the spring to spawn. This migration activity is called a run. Atlantic salmon have been known to swim upstream for 200 miles in the larger rivers to reach their native breeding grounds. The Atlantic salmon is quite healthy and silvery when it enters the river to spawn, but after spawning, it weakens and becomes dull in color. Large black spots develop on its skin, the fins of the male fish thicken, its jaws elongate, and its skin becomes covered in slime. Unlike other salmon that die immediately after spawning, many Atlantic salmon return to the ocean after spawning or the following spring. These rugged survivors are called kelts. Young salmon, called smolts, migrate downstream to the ocean at two years of age, where they feed and grow. A smolt's diet consists of crustaceans and small finfish. When the salmon reaches adulthood at about three years, it becomes a voracious predator and feeds only on large prey. They are usually so strong that only large fish, such as tuna, swordfish, or sharks, are able to eat them.

Fishery Note The New England Fishery Management Council manages the Atlantic salmon fishery to enhance the longevity of the species and the sustainability of the fishery.

Special Designation The Atlantic salmon is currently listed as Federally Endangered in the United States by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Division of Endangered Species.

Special Notes

Adapted from The Uncommon Guide to Common Life on Narragansett Bay. Save The Bay, 1998.