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The Origins of Pacific Salmon Names

The five common kinds of Pacific salmon have two names. Where did these names come from, and what did Cook Inlet Natives call salmon species?

by | January 20, 2022

Pacific salmon
Wikimedia Commons

Kings, reds, pinks, silvers, and chums. Any Alaskan can tell you that those are the common names for the five species of Pacific salmon in Alaska. They can probably also tell you the five alternative names: chinooks, sockeyes, humpies, cohoes, and chums. None of these names, however, originated in Alaska — and Native Alaskans have their own names for Pacific salmon that you might have never encountered.

Find out where the names originated for each of the five species of Pacific salmon that hatch in Alaska’s streams and return every year. 

Salmon Names: It’s All Greek to Me

Time to think about all the taxonomy you learned in high school biology class. Alaska salmon are all in a genus of fish called Oncorhynchus, a Greek word that means “hooked snout.” They get their name from the hooked nose male salmon develop during mating season. Steelhead trout also fall under the Oncorhynchus genus, but Atlantic salmon do not. They’re in the genus Salmo.

Of course, people have been naming Pacific salmon in Alaska since the first prehistoric explorers crossed the Bering Land Bridge. 

English names are a more recent phenomenon. According to naturalist Dennis Dauble, when the explorers Lewis and Clark crossed into the Columbia River Basin in 1805, they took the first stab at giving salmon names. They called chinook salmon simply “salmon,” silver salmon “white salmon-trout,” and red salmon “red charr.” They apparently did not encounter pinks or chums.

The Common Salmon Names

Here’s a breakdown of the five species of Pacific salmon, and where their two common names originated.

King Salmon / Chinook Salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawystcha)

The explorer William Dall wrote in 1865 that the “chowichee of the Yukon” are the king of salmon. The other name, chinook, is derived from the name of Salish Native village on the Columbia River. Chinook is the state fish of both Alaska and Oregon. The dark gums of king salmon lead some to call them “blackmouths.” In 1985, a sports fisherman caught a record 97 pound king salmon on the Kenai River. The biggest one ever caught commercially was a 126-pounder in a fish trap near Petersburg.

The Dena’ina Athabascan name for king salmon is łuq’aka’a. The Alutiiq names are aamasuuk or Iiliksak.

Red Salmon / Sockeye Salmon (Oncorhynchus Nerka)

Red salmon, also known as sockeyes, take their alternative name from the Salish word suk-kegh, which means “red fish.” When they spawn, sockeyes turn bright red on their backs and sides and olive-green on their heads.  Some sockeye salmon called “kokanee” spend their whole lives landlocked in freshwater lakes. Sockeyes are prized by personal use fishermen who participate in the China Poot dipnet fishery near Tutka Bay Lagoon.

The  Dena’ina Athabascan name for red salmon is k’q’uya. The Alutiiq word is niklliq.

Silver Salmon / Coho Salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch)

Silver salmon, also known as cohos, are hatched in almost every body of freshwater that flows to the Pacific Ocean and Bering Sea. “Cohos” is a word in the Halkomelem dialect of the Salish with an unknown meaning, possibly the name for the fish itself. 

The  Dena’ina Athabascan name for silver salmon is nudlaghi. The Alutiiq word is qakiiyaq.

Pink Salmon / Humpback Salmon (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha)

Pink salmon are also called humpbacks or humpies because of the noticeable hump that forms on the backs of males before they spawn. Pinks are the smallest of salmon found in North America, and Alaska supplies almost all of the pink salmon harvest in the United States. 

The  Dena’ina Athabascan name for pink salmon is qughuna. The Alutiiq words are amartuq and amaqaayak.

Chum Salmon / Dog Salmon (Oncorhynchus keta)

“Chum” is a Salish word meaning “spotted” or “marked.” These salmon are among the most common salmon species. They are an important source of dried fish in Alaska Native communities and are produced in hatcheries in Southeast Alaska to enhance salmon fisheries. Chum are less common in Cook Inlet, and Cook Inlet salmon hatcheries typically do not produce chum. Because some consider chum salmon less prized, they’re sometimes called dog salmon, because they are used as dog food. Salmon marketers have recently promoted chum salmon as Alaska Keta, using the scientific species name. 

The  Dena’ina Athabascan name for chum salmon is alima. The Alutiiq word is alimaq.

How CIAA Helps Support Cook Inlet-area Fisheries

Learn more about how CIAA enhances the sockeye, coho, and pink fisheries of the Cook Inlet area.

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