Chinook Salmon

Source: One Species at a Time/Ari Daniel - January 23, 2018 in Radio

Chinook Salmon
Photo: Dan Cook/USFWS/Wikimedia Commons (CC0)

Chinook or King Salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) are the largest salmon. They may reach around 150 cm in length and can occasionally exceed 23 kg; other salmon rarely exceed 14 kg. These fish have black spots on the back and on the dorsal, adipose and both lobes of the caudal (tail) fin. The gums are dark at the base of the teeth. At sea, these fish are blue, green, or gray above and silver below. Small males are often dull yellow while large males are often blotchy with dull red on the side. Breeding individuals are dark olive-brown to purple.

To learn more about and become a TerraMar Ambassador to the chinook salmon, check out their species page.


Ari: This is the One Species at a Time, the story of Earth’s biodiversity, one organism at a time. I’m Ari Daniel.

<fade down music>

Towell: This is the good news for you guys, you guys get really big fish.

Kids: Yesssssss…

Towell: Normally you get fish that are a little bit smaller, but this is all I got, so you get these ones.

Student: We get humongous fish. Student: I want a big fish.
Student: I want a big fish.
Student: Big fish, thank you. Student: So we color the white part?

Ari: Maybe you’ve guessed: these aren’t real fish. They’re called “dreamfish”. Thin pieces of wood, each cut into the shape of a swimming salmon. And these 6th graders at Willoughby Elementary School in Langley, Canada near Vancouver get to paint them.

Towell: And today is lucky, cause you get to paint whatever you like. You can put hearts or stars or rainbows. You can put polka dots. You can make it look like a real fish. You can put a big eye with faaahbulous eyelashes. You can put a little mouth with very sharp angry teeth with blood coming out of it. <kids groan> Whatever you like…

Ari: That’s Louise Towell. She’s one of the co-founders of a group called Stream of Dreams. They visit schools all over British Columbia – that’s western Canada – and teach about salmon. Joan Carne is the other co-founder.

Carne: Our main goal with our program is to get people to understand what they do in their own homes, in their own yards is going to affect the water that salmon live in. And the water that drains off their homes and their streets goes directly into salmon-bearing waters here. And one of the big issues for salmon is water quality: both streams, rivers and out in the ocean.

Ari: Clean water is vital for each of the 6 different types of salmon living in the waters near Willoughby Elementary School. One of those types of salmon is the Chinook.

Riddell: Well, the first thing about a Chinook salmon is they’re typically big. You have some populations that can frequently have animals returning at 80 and 90 pounds.

Ari: Brian Riddell is the director of the Pacific Salmon Foundation in Vancouver.

Riddell: You notice them because they are a glistening silver in the ocean, and that they’re deep bodied. Very, very powerful tails. And they have black speckles across them. They really look like power to me. A big Chinook salmon is really a remarkable animal when you see ’em in the wild.

Ari: Chinook salmon emerge from their eggs in the gravelly beds of streams and rivers all over British Columbia. Eventually they swim into the ocean where they grow bigger and fatter. And after anywhere between 3 and 7 years, they swim back to the same gravelly bed in the same stream or river where they were born in order to lay their own eggs. These salmon really touch and depend on all kinds of water. Here’s Joan Carne in the classroom.

Carne: The reason I like the salmon for Stream of Dreams is they need clean water in streams, they need clean water in the river, and they need clean water out in the ocean. So if we think salmon, if we take care of water for salmon, we’re looking after all the creatures that need clean water wherever they live.

Ari: Carne thinks of Chinook salmon like silvery threads.

Carne: They’re a thread, I like that. They connect the ocean to the forest. They connect communities up and down these huge rivers to each other. I sometimes think of our rivers as highways. And we think of highways running two ways, though most people think of rivers running one way: the water goes downhill. But when you have salmon, the rivers run backwards because the salmon take nutrients out of the ocean and deliver them way upstream up into our communities, feeding

the forests and all the other creatures. So there’s that thread as well. They’re, they’re, they pass through us in many different ways.

Ari: The Stream of Dreams team weaves together these threads when they visit a school like Willoughby. The students first learn that the water they rinse down the sink, flush down the toilet, wash off their cars – in fact, that passes through any drain – flows to the places where salmon like the Chinook live. Everything’s connected, so it’s important to keep that water clean and safe. Then, the kids paint dreamfish, which are attached to a chainlink fence around the school.

Carne: They take a boring barrier of a chain link fence and transform it into a children’s art gallery. You have to imagine little wooden shapes of fish painted in all the colors of the rainbow. These are children’s artworks. And then when we arrange them, we make a stream out of these dreamfish. And the stream has bends and curves and meanders and waterfalls. And they’re joyful, they’re colorful, and they’re there to celebrate the salmon as well as remind people that we share our neighborhoods with these beautiful fish.

Ari: The kids at Willoughby came up with lotsa great ideas for painting their fish to share with their neighborhood.

Student: My fish is bright orange, and it’s gonna have, like, stripes and stuff.

Student: I’m painting a fish with red eye and mustache, probably a weird fish.

Student: I’m painting a rainbow fish.

Student: I mix some of the colors like orange, red, blue and pink to make a sunset.

Student: It’s kind of like a motherboard of a computer. It has kinda wires going through the fish.

Student: I’m just randomly doing blue and green colors with a gray face and I’m just mixing a whole bunch of colors for fun, cause I have no ideas. So I’m just gonna do something till I get it, till I get what I want.

Ari: Along the fences of schools across 3 Canadian provinces and Washington state, the dreamfish dance. And now the dreamfish are traveling along the actual highways of Canada. <house door opening> Brian Riddell took me outside to show me the back of his Jeep where a dozen dreamfish decals – deckles if you’re Canadian – were arranged. One nibbled on the left edge of his rear license plate. Some swam along the bumper. This mural on the back of his Jeep gets a lot of attention.

Riddell: The kids love it because they see me driving around with what they know are the Stream of Dreams deckles.

Ari: With each dreamfish painted and then mounted or magnetized, another young person learns how important a Chinook salmon is. And how connected these fish are to the water on our planet. To clean streams. To pristine rivers. To a healthy ocean. One by one, the students are spreading the message.

Carne: Here we are, ten years later, nearly 100,000 young people have participated. I think 100,000 young people can change the world. You have more power than you know: in your choices when you buy, in the people you speak to, in the behaviors that you model, you have an incredible power for change.

<fade up music>

Ari: Go to eol.org/podcast to see photos of the dreamfish gallery now on the fence of Willoughby Elementary School. And to hear Brian Riddell’s recommendation for which type of salmon to eat, and how to cook it. While you’re at it, send us a painting or drawing of a kind of fish that swims through a stream or a river in your neighborhood. We’ll post them on our website, and send them to the Stream of Dreams team.


The Encyclopedia of Life has gathered information from all over the world to create the largest repository of species known to science. Their mission is to increase awareness and understanding of living nature through an Encyclopedia of Life that gathers, generates, and shares knowledge in an open, freely accessible and trusted digital resource.

Print article