Quinnat Salmon – Oncorhynchus-tshawytscha – introduced by 1905

Also called King, Chinook and Quinnat Salmon

Large Quinnat salmon caught at the mouth of Canterbury’s Waimakariri River. Note the bright silver colour when the salmon is fresh from the sea.

Also known as King salmon and Chinook salmon, this species was successfully introduced into New Zealand from North America by 1905. In that year, salmon returning to the Waitaki River were observed to be spawning naturally. From then on salmon continued to disperse to other rivers along the South Island’s east coast.

After 1905 Acclimatization Societies, and later Fish and Game Councils, have continued to rear salmon from stripped ova taken from returning salmon, and have distributed the offspring to other rivers and lakes. Quinnat salmon fingerlings introduced to New Zealand freshwater lakes do not spawn. The fisheries are instead maintained by continuous ongoing introductions by Fish and Game Councils.

Wild runs are now well established on the east coast of the South Island. There are smaller runs in some South Island West Coast Rivers. It has not been possible there are no salmon in the North Island of New Zealand.

The salmon become increasingly darker in colour as they make their way up-river to spawn.

Fertilized salmon eggs laid in high country streambeds hatch after two to three months depending on water temperature. The young salmon, known as parr, remain in fresh water for between 3 and 10 months as they migrate downriver to the sea and its rich supply of prey.

Adult salmon remain at sea for 2 to 3 years before returning to the same river where they were reared to breed and die; so completing the cycle. While at sea 76 percent of their diet was shown to consist of sprats according to a publication released by Gavin James of NIWA. His study was the results of several years work analyzing the stomach contents of over 800 Chinook (or quinnat) salmon taken at sea off the Canterbury coast. Chinook salmon and their distribution in New Zealand – NIWA.

When salmon first return to the rivers from the sea in summer they are bright silver in colour. These salmon have stopped feeding. Fish caught further up-river as they head to their spawning grounds loose condition and become darker and reddish in colour. Sometimes become sunburnt on their backs.

Although quinnat salmon grow to weigh as much as 130 lb (59 kg) in their original native North America, salmon caught in New Zealand usually weigh much less, with the average returning fish being in the region of 5 to 10 kg. In New Zealand, a really big specimen might weigh 42 pounds at the most. You can see here the winning fish weights for salmon entered in the Waitaki Salmon Fishing Contest. A really big New Zealand quinnat salmon would weigh 16 kg.

Planting eyed salmon ova in the Taieri River, Otago. Photograph courtesy of Monty Wright.
Fish & Game, assisted by many volunteers, release salmon fingerlings in mid-winter at the Montrose hatchery close to the headwaters of the Rakaia River.
Quinnat salmon fingerling. This is the size the salmon are when released by Fish & Game from their hatchery at Montrose, above the Rakaia Gorge, in the Southern Alps. At this stage, they are known as parr. 
This Quinnat salmon was caught and released at McIntosh’s Hole on the lower Waimakariri River, near Christchurch. It appears its adipose fin is missing. This fin is clipped off by Fish & Game at the hatchery in order to identify the fish as having been released. It measured about 25cm (10 inches) in length. this is about the size the salmon are when they first go to sea. At this stage, they are called smolts.
A big returning silver salmon caught in the Waitaki River. At this stage, they are 3 to 4 years old.
Large Quinnat salmon caught at the mouth of Canterbury’s Waimakariri River. Note the bright silver colour when the salmon are fresh from the sea.

Video: Salmon fishing at McIntosh’s Rocks 2km upstream from the Waimakariri River mouth.

The Heaviest Chinook Salmon

For the heaviest Chinook salmon, you would need to go to places like the Kenai River in Alaska, or the Colombia River in British Columbia, Canada and the United States of America, and other big rivers on the western seaboard of North America. The biggest king salmon ever caught was a 126-pound monster that was caught in a fish trap near Petersburg, Alaska in 1949. You can see photographs of ten of the heaviest monster Chinook or King salmon caught here at Fish With JD.

The salmon we have in New Zealand’s South Island originally came from North America. They are the same species but in New Zealand, they grow to less than half the size of their North American cousins. There are several possible reasons for the size difference.

Firstly, Our braided Canterbury Rivers are much shorter in distance from the sea to the spawning grounds. Whereas in the Western United States and Canada King salmon often have to travel hundreds of miles upstream to spawn. Bigger fish have an advantage when it comes to making these long upstream journeys.

Secondly, the food supply for King salmon while they are at sea may be better and more abundant in North America.

Thirdly, water temperatures both at sea and in their spawning rivers may be better suited to the species. In Canterbury, over summer both sea and river temperatures can be a bit too warm and are not ideal for salmon.

Here is a couple of the heaviest sea-run salmon ever caught in New Zealand. 

Allan Pratt, 41 lb salmon caught in the Waitaki River.

Norm Thackwell, 42 lb salmon caught in the Waimakariri River.

Global Warming

As an interesting aside, as sea temperatures increase as a result of global warming some species of salmon in North America have tended to drift to the colder northern rivers and parts of the Pacific Ocean. Perhaps we are seeing a similar thing happening in New Zealand where the decline in the salmon fishery experienced over the past 25 years may be a result of increasing sea and river temperatures.

The most notable changes in Canterbury have been the decrease in salmon numbers and fish size. Whereas salmon weighing in the high 20 pounds to lower 30 pounds range were quite common in the early to mid-90s, we now no longer see those heavier fish. Also, higher water temperatures at sea affect the abundance of the salmon’s prey species in the marine environment.  

Smaller hen salmon carry fewer eggs so this in turn potentially reduces the size of the wild salmon population. It is also interesting to note that there has been a decline in the size of Chinook salmon in North America over the past 40 years, with the steepest reduction in fish size taking place over the last 15 years. The Reference University of Washington: Largest Chinook salmon disappearing from West Coast.

This post was last modified on 04/01/2021 11:37 am

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