The Atlantic salmon is a keystone species.

It plays a vital role in its watershed ecosystems in the Northeast, bridging between fresh and saltwater environments.

While there are numerous threats to its survival—including climate change and human development—there are efforts underway to protect and celebrate this remarkable fish with a historic foothold in our history. In fact, NOAA declared that this year will be the International Year of the Salmon, and we were thrilled to host a kickoff event with a free lecture on October 30. The lecture featured Catherine Schmitt, author of The President’s Salmon, and the Honorable Madonna Soctomah, former Passamaquoddy Tribal Representative with the Maine State Legislature and St. Croix International Waterway Commissioner.

Atlantic salmon swimming

What Makes Atlantic Salmon So Special

Salmo salar
Can grow to 59 in / 150 cm
From: North Atlantic Ocean
U.S. Population Status: Endangered

The Atlantic salmon is a remarkable fish, bridging fresh and saltwater ecosystems. U.S. populations hatch primarily in Maine rivers then migrate to the Atlantic Ocean, where they live for several years before returning to their natal rivers to spawn. Unlike its Pacific cousin, the Atlantic salmon can then return to the ocean and live to spawn several more times.

More Atlantic Salmon Fun Facts

  • Salmon are anadromous, which means they undergo a series of physiological changes called smoltification that allow them to be born in fresh water, migrate to salt water just before adulthood, and then return to fresh water to spawn
  • Atlantic salmon return to their natal river by using their sense of smell
  • Adult salmon stop eating when they prepare to spawn and may not eat again for up to a year
  • Unlike the Pacific salmon, Atlantic salmon don’t die after they spawn, but return to the open ocean and can even spawn again
  • Like a tree, a salmon’s age can be determined by the number of rings on its scales
Atlantic salmon
Atlantic salmon on exhibit at the New England Aquarium

At the Aquarium

Atlantic salmon are sleek, shiny, and beautiful fish. Cascading water and ample habitat highlight their freshwater exhibit. These fish were hatched in captivity and now live at the Aquarium so visitors can get a a close look at this once abundant New England fish.

In the News

A preview to the Aquarium Lecture Series talk was aired on Living Lab Radio with interviews with Catherine Schmitt, author of The President’s Salmon; and the Honorable Madonna Soctomah, former Passamaquoddy Tribal Representative with the Maine State Legislature.

If we make rivers a good home for salmon again, it helps all the other species that live in watersheds.
- Catherine Schmidt, author "The President's Fish"

Conservation Context

Throughout their lifecycle, salmon face many human-made threats to their survival. Starting three months after salmon hatch, salmon fry rely on side channels in river systems to survive. These smaller, slower streams that branch off from rivers provide refuge from turbulent currents and hideaways from larger predators. Roads and culverts can block fry from reaching these sheltered areas. By restoring access to side channels, people can help salmon populations recover.
Later on in their life cycle, their bodies change to prepare for their journey to sea. But the salmon smolts face many obstacles on their journey from rivers to the Atlantic Ocean. Dams can prevent the fish from ever reaching the ocean. By creating fish passages such as ladders and lifts for smolts and returning adults, people can help restore wild populations of Atlantic salmon.
The challenges don’t stop once they reach the ocean. With climate change increasing ocean temperatures and bycatch threatening many groups of marine animals, finding adequate food supplies can be a challenge to the endangered Atlantic salmon. By working with our communities to address climate change and supporting bycatch-reduction techniques, people can help healthy salmon return to their natal rivers to spawn.
We are raising awareness to these threats so communities can come together to speak up for Atlantic salmon. Visit the Aquarium to see them up close and learn more about what we can do to help them.