Salmon Migration – How Do Salmon Find Their Way Home?

Wild Alaskan salmon are the embodiment of the primordial struggle for survival and the cycle of life. They represent power, endurance, vitality, and abundance, as well as the great fragility that is present in the balance of nature. In the Pacific Northwest, salmon play a key, interdependent role in the lives of humans as well as in the ecosystems where they live. Many different industries such as commercial fishing, seafood processing, and travel & tourism, all depend on healthy runs of salmon to keep their businesses thriving, their employees working, and their families fed. On a much larger scale, people all over the world likewise depend on the abundance of these incredible fish for the delicious nourishment they provide at the dinner table. Every summer and fall salmon return to the place of their birth to spawn, regenerate life, and then die. Common questions that people have are, “How do salmon find their way home? How do salmon know where to go?

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Every bite of nutritious, delicious, wild-caught salmon that you take is a taste of a profound, epic experience that all starts on a beautiful, pristine river or lake. A salmon’s life begins in the autumn when its mother deposits eggs into a gravel bed, which are then fertilized by the male. The egg gives way to various stages of development and eventually becomes a young fish. Depending on the species of salmon, the little guy will then either migrate hundreds of miles back out to the vast saltwater ocean, or spend another year or two in the freshwater lake or river where it was hatched before heading out to sea. After spending several years out in the ocean, millions upon millions of salmon will begin their challenging journey home to the river of their birth to spawn and then die.

How Do Salmon Navigate?

Salmon return to the exact place of their birth because they instinctually know that doing so offers a good chance at successful reproduction. After all, the river of their own birth has proven itself as an ideal area for spawning and fish development. If for some reason a salmon can’t find its home river, it’ll continue to search for the right one until it either uses up all its energy and dies, or, as a last resort, it’ll enter a different river where it can find other salmon with which to spawn. But how do they do it? How do they travel and navigate hundreds of aquatic miles to get back to the exact place of their birth?

Recent studies have shown that salmon use the earth’s magnetic field to find their way home as it enables them to figure out their location and then direct them to their final destination…similar to how we humans use a compass or a GPS device. For salmon, however, their navigation ability is most likely a genetically inherited skill, rather than one they learn during migration.

Along with utilizing this built-in compass ability, salmon also have an incredible sense of smell that helps them find their way during migration. After a salmon is born and starts growing up and developing, it learns or “imprints” the unique smells of its particular home waters. As an adult, when returning from the vast ocean to spawn, a salmon can pick up on those distinct scents as they close in on the place of their birth to reproduce and then expire, thus completing the cycle of life.

Check out the video below to see and learn more…