Freshwater Fishes

Sockeye Salmon – Oncorhynchus nerka – Waitaki River Catchment – Video

Sockeye Salmon – Oncorhynchus nerka – only landlocked stocks are found in New Zealand

by Allan Burgess

Table of Contents

Most New Zealand freshwater anglers will have never seen a sockeye salmon. They are only found in the Waitaki River catchment, especially in lakes Ohau and Benmore, and in smaller numbers in lakes Aviemore and Waitaki. These North Otago/South Canterbury sockeye salmon are thought to be the only population of the species in the southern hemisphere. According to Stella McQueen in A Photographic Guide to Freshwater Fishes of New Zealand, the sockeye salmon in Lake Ohau are smaller than those in Lake Benmore because Ohau has less food available for them.

Although the sockeye population in the region is landlocked they move out of the lakes and into gravel rivers and streams to spawn in the Autumn. In their native North America, Kamchatka in the Russian Far East, and in rivers of northern Japan, sockeye salmon are anadromous (they hatch from eggs in freshwater, migrate to sea, where they spend most of their lives, before returning to their rivers of origin to spawn and die). Landlocked populations are also found in North America.

There is no evidence the New Zealand population has ever been sea-running. All sockeye salmon in this country are landlocked fish.
New Zealand’s sockeye salmon population was thought to have died out back in the 1980s, but now appear to have increased in number and expanded their range. They have now been seen in nearly all of the rivers and streams flowing into Lake Benmore and the lower Ohau River. They are also present in the Twizel, Fraser, and Tekapo Rivers. One of the best spawning areas for sockeye salmon is Larch Stream, which runs into Lake Ohau.

Where sockeye salmon are present they provide forage for other trout species.


Sockeye salmon – Oncorhynchus nerka – Photograph courtesy of Brendon Spicer.

Lake Poerua Sockeye Salmon Introduction in 1985

Sockeye salmon were introduced into Lake Poerua near Lake Brunner, Westland, in 1985 by the then West Coast Acclimatisation Society. As far as anyone is aware they failed to become established there.

Sign Up To Our Newsletter 

Sockeye salmon are not usually taken by anglers even when they are present in particular water. They are filter feeders living on plankton. It is quite possible to fish regularly in Lake Benmore for example without ever catching one! They generally will only take a fly as an aggression response when in spawning mode in late summer and autumn. Sockeye salmon are most likely present in Lake Tekapo and other waters in the Waitaki River catchment not mentioned in this article.

This sockeye salmon was taken on the flyrod by Jamie Blair near the boat ramp in Lake Benmore. Sockeye salmon in New Zealand’s South Island doesn’t have the brilliant red colouration of their northern hemisphere counterparts despite being the same species. Photograph courtesy of Jamie Blair. Click for larger version of this photograph.

Identification of Sockeye Salmon

The name sockeye derives from an anglicised version of their North American Indian name saw-kai or sukkai.  The Russian name for sockeye salmon is nerka.

The sockeye is the smallest of the Pacific salmons. Those found in the lakes of the Waitaki System are bright silver in colour with dark blue/grey spots on the upper body. Smaller lake fish especially, closely resemble rainbow trout. When fish migrate upstream to spawn in March they are more of a green colour, with a pink or reddish tinge which is darker in jackfish. Landlocked sockeye salmon in New Zealand do not achieve the brilliant red colouration of sea-run fish in their native North America.

Like the landlocked salmon stocks in North America, sockeye salmon in New Zealand are smaller fish, usually reaching a length of about 300 mm and weighing less than a kilogramme. A big landlocked salmon in New Zealand could reach as much as 500 mm in length and weigh up to 1.8 kg. In North America where there is a canning industry for sea-run sockeye salmon, they can reach just over 800 mm in length and weigh 7 kg.

Introduction of Sockeye Salmon into New Zealand

Sockeye salmon were first brought into New Zealand as eggs in 1900 but unfortunately, all of them died. A second, consignment of 500,000 eggs arrived from Canada in 1902. According to the late Ron McDowall in New Zealand Freshwater Fishes – A Natural History and Guide, 160,000 of these ova arrived in good condition. The viable sockeye ova were hatched and reared at the government’s Marine Department hatchery on the Hakataramea River, a tributary of the Waitaki River. Some of the young sockeye salmon were released in different parts of the Waitaki River catchment, notably well upstream at Lake Ohau, others were retained for rearing purposes and released in later years as two and three-year-olds.

According to McDowall, there was some discussion as to whether the ova received from Canada came from sea-run fish or landlocked stocks. It was clearly the intention of the New Zealand government of the day to introduce sockeye and Quinnat salmon for the purpose of building up a canning industry. So it must have been sea-running sockeye ova that was asked for. There is no evidence any of the sockeye stocks reared at Hakataramea and introduced into the Waitaki River system ever went to sea and returned. This raises the question of whether sea-run sockeye ova were actually sent from Canada. All the existing sockeye salmon in New Zealand today descended from that one batch of ova that arrived in 1902.

Update September 2018 – Fish & Game Sockeye Salmon Video

Over the 2018 spawning season, Fish & Game used a helicopter to gain an increased understanding of the Upper Waitaki’s sockeye salmon run. They estimate the size of the run to be a very healthy 39,000 fish. The helicopter surveys will continue for the next two years, with Meridian Energy helping to fund them.

Video from Fish & Game New Zealand.  The most secretive of New Zealand’s sports fish, the sockeye salmon are spawning in the Mackenzie Country at the moment (March 2017). These fish, introduced in 1902 were thought to have disappeared in the 1980s but have staged a comeback and are now found in ever-increasing numbers and places than they were before.

Origin of New Zealand’s Sockeye Salmon

by Chas Hardy, FRD (Fisheries Research Division), Christchurch. Freshwater Catch No.18 Autumn 1983

In North America from the time the first cannery started on the Fraser River, British Columbia in 1870, the nations rimming the north Pacific Ocean have harvested countless millions of anadromous sockeye. With rich flesh and flavour, it is one of the world’s most valuable food fishes, and canned red salmon is a delicacy sold and appreciated worldwide.

Sockeye fisheries are important to the economies of Alaska, Japan, Russia, Korea, and British Columbia. Long before western man surrounded the fish with a metal can, the Eskimo and Indian peoples of the North Pacific depended on the annual spawning runs of salmon for much of their food supply.

Adult sockeye salmon from Lake Ohau, New Zealand.

In New Zealand’s search for a fish to establish a salmon-fishing industry to add to the wealth and prosperity of its citizens, it was almost inevitable that sockeye would be introduced to join the other candidates. The Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar), the quinnat salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) and the steelhead (S.gairdnerii), had already been tried for generating useful seagoing stocks, but without apparent success.

The Marine Department reported to Parliament in 1901 that “arrangements were made to obtain a shipment of sockeye, a blueback salmon ova from Canada, but owing to the season being a poor one the Canadian Fisheries Department was unable to collect the ova, but a promise has been made that shipment will be sent next year”.

Parliament was told the next year that, “Shipments of salmon ova have been received from Canada and Great Britain. The shipment from Canada consisted of 500,000 sockeye or blueback ova, which were supplied without charge by the Canadian Fisheries Department. The ova was sent from Canada to San Francisco, in charge of one of the Canadian Fishery officers. At San Francisco, they were taken in charge of Mr G. H. Lambson, an officer of the United States Fish Commission, who brought them to New Zealand. The shipment arrived in bad condition because the packing was not suitable for long-distance carriage. Only 160,000 ova were good when unpacked, and there was a large percentage of deformed fish amongst those hatched out. The salmon at present at Hakataramea are as follows: 20,000 sockeye, or blueback (six months old).

“During the year there have been liberated in the tributaries of the Waitaki River, 5,000 sockeye fry, and in the streams flowing into Lake Ohau 91,200 sockeye fry.” (H-15, 1902).

That comprises the official record, by the Marine Department, of the introduction. (The Hakataramea was the Marine Department’s new salmon hatchery constructed on the Hakataramea tributary of the lower Waitaki River.)

A report issued by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Canada (Aro, 1979) brings to light additional historical information which adds to our knowledge of the Waitaki sockeye stock.

“On December 13, 1899, the officer in charge of the Fraser River hatchery reported that ‘Yesterday, in accordance with your instructions I had 500,000 of the ova (sockeye) carefully packed and shipped on the S.S. Warrimoo, consigned to the care of the Colonial Secretary, Sydney, N.S.W., for the New Zealand Government‘ (Prince, 1900). The ova were from the 1899 collection at Weaver Creek, British Columbia. Later it was reported (Prince, 1903) that these eggs ‘turned bad in transit, and en route at Honolulu it was found that while the upper trays were in good condition, the lower ones had died and undergone putrefaction’.”

So it seems that an earlier shipment of sockeye ova was made, but did not survive to reach New Zealand.

The key shipment, made 2 years later, is confirmed in Aro’s report. Citing Prince (1902), the ova were shipped to San Francisco on October 12, 1901, in the care of Mr Robinson (the Canadian Fishery officer mentioned in the Marine Department’s annual report) who handed them over to Mr Lambson “in a very satisfactory condition”. And, importantly, we learn that “these eggs were from the 1901 collection of 300,000 at Canoe Creek, 4,500,000 from Scotch Creek, and 2,000,000 from Tappen Creek by the Granite Creek hatchery. The eggs were shipped to San Francisco via the Fraser River hatchery and Victoria. The size of the shipment is reported variously from 400,000 to 528,000 eggs”.

Why Sockeye Salmon in New Zealand are not Sea-Runners

These are anadromous sockeye salmon caught and photographed in North America. Anadromous means fish born in freshwater but spend most of their lives in saltwater and return to freshwater to spawn. We also call such fish sea-runners or sea-running. Unfortunately, sockeye salmon in the Waitaki Catchment in New Zealand’s South Island are landlocked, much smaller, and lack the brilliant red colouring of these North American sea-runners. The top fish is a female which is slightly more subdued in colour. Below it is a male or jackfish. Note the vivid red colouration on its flanks and typical “hooked” jaw. Image by Kevin Phillips from Pixabay

Eighty years on, the identification of the source of the Waitaki sockeye ova might be considered to be of only academic interest. But since sockeye exists in the system today and has not in the intervening decades developed a discerned sea-run, a closer look at the native source might provide some clue as to why a sea-run population did not become established.

With a thoroughness characteristic of the report, Aro identifies the collection streams. All 3 (Canoe, Scotch, and Tappen) are tributaries in the Fraser River drainage – specifically tributaries of Shuswap Lake in the Kamloops district of eastern British Columbia. Contiguous with the Shuswap Lake system is the Adams River system, one of the major sea-run sockeye spawning areas of the Fraser.

Three forms of sockeye are recognised: the sockeye (the anadromous form); kokanee (the non-anadromous, self-perpetuating form), and residuals (the non-anadromous off-spring of sea-going sockeye). For present purposes it is sufficient to note these features (Ricker, 1940, 1959):

Morphologically the 3 forms are indistinguishable, except for:

(a) the smaller size at maturity of residuals and kokanee, compared with anadromous sockeye;

(b) mature residual males are usually a dull olive-grey colour while kokanee males have the red body and green head colouring of sockeye (although kokanee populations have been reported with variations in colour extending to the dull colouration ascribed to residuals);

(c) residuals and kokanee live and reproduce in freshwater.

~ Residuals may, or may not, resume an anadromous habit, according to circumstances; kokanee tends towards permanent, self-perpetuating, nonmigratory populations.

~ Kokanee and residuals are present in a number of British Columbia lakes, sometimes together, or with one or other form abundant, scarce, or absent. Ward and Larkin (1964) examined the sockeye populations of Shuswap Lake. They concluded that residuals were “scarce if present at all”, and that non-anadromous sockeye (kokanee) were abundant and spawned in streams flowing into the eastern basins of Shuswap Lake (the Salmon Arm listed by Aro).

Where the Sockeye Salmon Liberated in New Zealand came from in British Columbia, Canada – Maps

West coast of Canada showing the area from which New Zealand importations of sockeye salmon were obtained.

Enlargement of area.

One might be tempted to suggest that in the 1901 collection from the 3 localities both sockeye and kokanee ova were included in the 6,800,000 eggs taken. There can be differences in the time of spawning between sea-run sockeye and kokanee and sometimes overlap. Jordan and Evermann (1896) remarked “We have found them (sockeye and kokanee) breeding at the same time and in the same stream” and that the 160,000 live eggs which arrived at Hakataramea were, in fact, by mischance, of kokanee origin – not the anadromous sockeye intended.

Perhaps if the old Granite Creek and Fraser River hatchery records were still in existence this suggestion could be disposed of.

The evidence for a sea-run of sockeye in the Waitaki rests on the identification of 4 specimens caught in Lake Ohau in 1907 and examined by Sir James Hector (Thomson, 1922) as “without doubt young sea-run specimens of the blueback salmon sockeye”. They were sexually immature so it is unlikely that external characters (colour, body shape) would have assisted identification (they were described as “being so much out of condition as not to be fit for food or sport”). Since the 3 forms of sockeye are indistinguishable morphologically (except by colour, size, and behaviour) the identification as young sea-run sockeye depends on size alone.

Alaskan anadromous sockeye average 7 lbs (3175 g) weight and Fraser River sockeye 5 lbs (2268 g). It is reasonable to suppose that if these specimens were sea-run fish returning to spawn they would have been larger than the weights recorded 42 ozs (119 g), 36 ozs (1021 g), 20 ozs (794 g), 23 ozs (652 g). The lengths are given (48 cm, 46 cm, 71 cm, 58 cm) are not exceptional for nonanadromous sockeye. A not unreasonable supposition is that they were not sea-run sockeye, but simply good-sized specimens of a population living and growing within Lake Ohau.

Sockeye Salmon – Oncorhynchus nerka. This magnificent sea-run male sockeye salmon was caught and photographed in its native North America. Sockeye is one of the smallest of the seven species of Pacific salmon. They range in size from 24 (61cm) to 33 (83cm) inches in length and weigh between 5 (2.2kg) and 15 (6.8 kg) pounds (National Geographic). This is clearly a very big male fish. While at sea sockeye salmon are silver. They turn this scarlet red colour when they enter freshwater on their spawning runs. In New Zealand, we only have landlocked sockeye salmon in freshwater lakes and rivers. These fish never go to sea and so are smaller in size and more subdued in colour. Image by Barbara Jackson from Pixabay

One final clue is offered for a solution to this mystery. Ricker (1940) set out a table of characters whereby he considered kokanee differed from residuals. Among these was the degree of absorption of scale margins at maturity: in kokanee, this was “always advanced”; in residuals “little or none”. It is interesting that Flain (FMD Reprint No. 45) examined scales from a sample of 200 sockeye that entered the newly constructed Aviemore spawning channel in March 1969, and noted: “the scales were similarly difficult (to read) being badly eroded as they were obtained from spawning fish”. The Aviemore channel is above the lower dam on the Waitaki River and is inaccessible to any sea-run salmonids.

Sockeye Salmon swimming and spawning. Scientific name: Oncorhynchus nerka. Natural habitat. Kamchatka, Russia. Photograph, Sergei Uriadnikov.


Aro, K.V. 1979. Transfers of eggs and young of Pacific salmon within British Columbia. Fish. Mar. Tech. Serv. Rep. 861: 145 p.

Flain, M. 1971. Sockeye salmon Oncorhynchus nerka (Walbaum). Fish. Div. Reprint No. 45, N.Z. Marine Department.

Jordan, D.S., and Everman, B.W. 1896. Fishes of North and Middle America. Smithsonian Institution, U.S. Nat. Mus. Bull. 47(1): 1-1240.

Prince, E.E. 1900. Report on fish culture operations in the Dominion of Canada, 1899. Appendix No. 11: 227-261, Fisheries. Thirty-second Annual Report of the Department of Marine and Fisheries.

Prince, E.E. 1902. Report on fish culture operations in the Dominion of Canada, 1901. Appendix No. 12: 228-257, Fisheries. Thirty-fourth Annual Report of the Department of Marine and Fisheries 1901.

Prince, E.E. 1903. Fish Culture, 1902. Appendix No. 11: 224-266, Fisheries. Thirty-fifth Annual Report of the Department of Marine and Fisheries, 1902.

Ricker, W.E. 1940. On the origin of kokanee, a freshwater type of sockeye salmon. Transac. Royal Soc. Canada, Ser. lll, Sect. V, 34: 121-135.

Ricker, W.E. 1959. Additional observations concerning residual sockeye and kokanee, Oncorhynchus nerka. J.Fish. Res. Bd. Canada 16(6); 1959: 897-904.

Thomson, G.M. 1922. The naturalisation of animals and plants in New Zealand. Cambridge University Press.

Ward, F.J., and P.A. Larkin, 1964. Cylic dominance in Adams River sockeye salmon. Internat. Pacific Salmon Fish. Comm. Progress Report No. 11: 116 p.

The dazzling colour of a live male sockeye salmon from Chilkat Lake in the wilds of Alaska.

Subscribe to the Fishingmag Newsletter

This post was last modified on 11/04/2023 8:19 pm

Leave a Comment
Published by

Recent Posts

How to Catch Fish and Where

How to Catch Fish and Where - The Complete Kiwi Beginner's Guide By Mike Rendle…


Fishes of Aotearoa by Paul Caiger

Fishes of Aotearoa (includes both fresh and saltwater fishes) By Paul Caiger New Zealand has…


Fishing the Tongariro – A History of Our Greatest Trout River

Fishing the Tongariro - A History of Our Greatest Trout River By Grant Henderson  Since…


Porare – Girella tricuspidata

Porare - Girella tricuspidata - How and Where to Catch Porare By Allan Burgess Although…


Jack’s Sprat Trout Fly

Jack's Sprat Trout Fly - An old favourite for targeting rainbow trout in the lakes…


Counting on it – Fish & Game staff checking on wildlife numbers to manage species

Counting on it - Fish & Game staff checking on wildlife numbers to manage species…