Life Cycle

Wild Atlantic salmon vary in appearance during their lifetimes. Until the early 19th century the life cycle was not understood and documented, and Parr and Smolt were assumed to be different species of fish.

EGGS - Pea-sized orange eggs are deposited in riverbed gravel in autumn, and hatch the following early spring. As the eggs develop, the eyes of the developing wild salmon can be seen through the semi-transparent membrane.

ALEVIN - The partly transparent alevin hatch and remain hidden in the riverbed gravel, feeding from their attached yolk sacs. They are about 2 cm or less than 1 inch in length.

FRY - Wriggling up from the gravel, fry begin feeding on microscopic life in the stream. They eventually reach a length of 5 to 8 cm./2 to 3in. before transforming into parr.

PARR - The vertical markings, called 'parr marks' appear, with a single red dot between. Parr remain in the river for 2 to 6 years, depending on water temperatures and food availability.

SMOLT - At a length of 12 to 24 cm/4.7 to 9.5 in. during springtime parr transform and become smolt. A silvery sheen replaces the parr marks, and internally they undergo a complex transformation to survive in saltwater. On the downstream journey the odors of the smolt's native river are imprinted on its memory, to be recalled when it returns to spawn.

ADULT - Silvery hunters, adult wild salmon live one or more years at sea. Most populations follow lengthy migration routes to waters off southwestern Greenland where they grow rapidly on a diet of crustaceans and small fish. Other feeding grounds exist, such as waters surrounding the Faroe Islands north of Scotland, and some populations may stay closer to home rivers, such as those from the inner Bay of Fundy rivers. Wild salmon that return after one year at sea are called GRILSE. Adult salmon return to home rivers, entering freshwater between April and November. Once in freshwater they stop feeding, living off accumulated fat reserves.

SPAWNING IN A REDD - In late fall the wild Atlantic salmon spawn. The female digs a 10-30cm/4-12 in. deep nest called a REDD in the gravel bottom of the stream. Her eggs and the milt from an adult male are released into the redd, the gravel replaced with additional tail thrusts. In some cases sexually mature male parr manage to fertilize a percentage of the eggs. In the painting parr are seen swimming nearby, looking for an opportunity. The female may lay 1,500 eggs or more for each kg./2.2 lb of body weight. - Thus a 12 pound female salmon will lay about 8,000 eggs, completing the life cycle.  Atlantic salmon can return to the ocean the following spring to feed and then return to their natal rivers to spawn again