What is the Difference Between Pacific and Atlantic Salmon?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Atlantic and Pacific salmon are both in the family Salmonidae, along with trout, but they comprise different genuses, and have slightly different life cycles. Both types of salmon are commercially fished and farmed, which is something about which environmentalists have raised concerns. Consumers can help to support healthy fisheries by purchasing wild caught salmon, or fish which has been certified by an organization such as the Marine Stewardship Council. Biologists also encourage consumers to consider expanding their taste when it comes to fish, and experimenting with new species at the dinner table.

Grilled salmon with vegetables is a healthy meal choice.
Grilled salmon with vegetables is a healthy meal choice.

Both Pacific and Atlantic salmon are anadramous, meaning that they are able to live in both salt and fresh water. The fish are born in fresh water, and make their way to the open ocean to live. When the salmon are ready to breed, they travel back to fresh water to spawn. The need for freshwater spawning environments makes salmon very sensitive to pollution, heavy accumulations of silt in rivers, and dams. For these reason, Atlantic and Pacific salmon are sometimes used as an indicator species to identify potential environmental issues.

Pacific and Atlantic salmon can live in salt water and fresh water.
Pacific and Atlantic salmon can live in salt water and fresh water.

Pacific salmon are in the genus Oncorhynchus, which contains numerous individual species including Chinook, Coho, and Steelhead. Unlike Atlantic salmon, Pacific salmon only spawn once before they die. Each generation, however, appears to have a memory for spawning spots and traveling routes. Atlantic salmon, on the other hand, are in the genus Salmo, typified by the species Salmo salar. They are capable of breeding multiple times, and they tend to favor the same breeding spots year after year.

Both types of salmon are fished commercially.
Both types of salmon are fished commercially.

The introduction of Atlantic salmon into Pacific water and vice versa has been criticized by biologists. The fish are mainly introduced into fish farms, but escapees from fish farms could compromise the native salmon species. Competition for resources can lead to destabilization of a species, which is a major concern in the Pacific Northwest, where Pacific salmon play an important role in Native American culture. Populations of both types of salmon are carefully monitored.

In addition to being at risk due to environmental degradation, Pacific and Atlantic salmon are also threatened by overfishing. Salmon meat is an extremely popular form of seafood, with many consumers who “do not like fish” enjoying salmon annually. Both Pacific and Atlantic salmon stocks are in decline, despite the efforts of government agencies to preserve them. Fishery collapse also has a profound impact on local economies, as the disappearance of fish stocks can also lead to vanishing income for communities which have traditionally sustained themselves through fishing.

Due to the mercury levels of salmon, pregnant women are typically advised to limit consumption of the fish.
Due to the mercury levels of salmon, pregnant women are typically advised to limit consumption of the fish.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Could someone tell me the difference between Atlantic and Pacific salmon? In Lake Ontario, there are different catch limits for different salmon. Thanks.


I don't get it. First you say eat wild caught salmon, then you say stocks are in decline, presumably from eating too much wild salmon. Farms are surely a good way to preserve stocks in the wild and to eat less salty farm salmon. What you say doesn't add up.


Which has the most omegas in them, the atlantic or pacific?


Actually, escaped farmed Atlantic salmon in the Pacific Northwest do not pose any competition risk to wild salmon. Since as early as 1874, people tried to introduce and establish Atlantic salmon in the Pacific for sport fishing.

There have been hundreds of millions of Atlantic salmon fry deliberately introduced for this purpose from California to British Columbia. The last attempt was in Washington in 1991. All these attempts failed, Pacific salmon vastly outcompeted the newcomers.

Escaped farmed salmon usually swim around the pen, looking for food pellets, and then get eaten by seals and caught by fishermen. Those that don't, usually starve to death because they've never eaten anything but pellets their whole lives and usually can't make the switch to foraging for wild food.


I can answer most of these questions.

@Post 2: Technically yes, there are wild Atlantic Coho Salmon. They were introduced to the great lakes sporadically starting in the 1930’s and continuing to this day.

Spawning populations didn’t really take hold until the 70’s and now you have Coho, Chinook, and Pink all established throughout the Great Lakes system. However, all salmonids are to be caught for recreational purposes only in this system currently so one ought not to see any type of wild atlantic salmon for sale at a restaurant.

@Post 3: There are indeed remnant wild populations of Salmo Salar throughout their original range, but only a fraction of what once was and the more successful populations are relegated to more remote regions. There is no longer any commercial take of the species as far as I know.

@Post 5: The Salmo Genera contains all of the fishes we know of as trout, with the Atlantic Salmon being the only anadromous species in the genera. Nevertheless, the Atlantic Salmon has traits much more aligned to the Salmo Genera than its distant cousins Onchorynchus. It lives on after spawning, doesn’t display the aggressive tendencies found in Pacifics and it is the females that mature early as a genetic response for survival under certain conditions. This is called grilsing, as opposed to the jacking that sometimes occurs with the male of the Oncorhynchus group.

Hope this helps. --Bob M., Victoria, BC


even though both these species have a common name, "salmon", what is the reason that prompted biologists to categorize them in two different genera. any answer?


Thanks for the feedback. I advised the restaurant and they are going to change the title of their menu item. I am from the West Coast and do not approve of the huge fish farms that are operating near our home!


My question is are there any salmon left in the Atlantic Ocean? Is it possible to have a "Wild Atlantic Coho Salmon" or are they all farmed?


Is there such a thing as wild atlantic coho salmon? This item was advertised as a menu item at a Winnipeg restaurant. I understood that Wild Coho Salmon was a Pacific Ocean fish.


Some Pacific salmon such as king and silver, chinook and coho, are farmed, but they are also caught in the wild.

Atlantic salmon on the other hand is farmed.

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