Arctic Char | Oceana Canada

Ocean Fishes

Arctic Char

Salvenlinus alpinu

Also known as

Alpine trout, Salmon trout, Ikalupik, IKaluk

Distribution

Large circumpolar distribution

Ecosystem/Habitat

Freshwater rivers to open ocean; some restricted to lakes

Feeding Habits

Predator

Conservation Status

Not at Risk

Taxonomy

Order Salmoniformes (salmon and relatives), Family Salmonidae (salmon, trouts and chars)

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Arctic char are related to trout and salmon, all of which are predatory fish of the Salmonidae family. With the northernmost distribution of any freshwater fish, Arctic char is a key species in the marine and freshwater ecosystems of northern Canada. This also makes them an important and culturally significant food source for Inuit and northern communities. They are often anadromous, meaning they migrate from the ocean back to freshwater rivers to spawn. But some populations are restricted to freshwater lakes and rivers and spend their whole lives there. Arctic char are relatively long lived, with a maximum recorded age of 40 years old!

Arctic char have been said to be “the most variable vertebrate on earth”, not just because of their physical variation but also because of their behaviour, ecology and life history! Scientists think that the range in Arctic char’s appearance is related to the extreme and unpredictable Arctic environment. Depending on the specific population, habitat and time of year, the colour of Arctic char changes. They are generally dark brown in colour with a silver back and lighter coloured spots. Their underside can be a brighter colour of white, red, pink or orange; particularly with spawning males. They have a large salmon-like body type with two dorsal fins. Sea-run Arctic char are generally larger than freshwater Arctic char, at 2.3 to 4.5 kilograms versus 0.2 to 2.3 kg respectively.

Typical anadromous Arctic char will stay in the river system they hatched in, eating small prey, such as shrimp and insect larvae, until they reach about four to five years old. During this life stage they are known as parr. They then migrate to the ocean as smolts, or juveniles, for the summer months to take advantage of its high productivity, gorging themselves on plankton, invertebrates and small fish.

Once they become adults, Arctic char will migrate to freshwater to spawn in September or October and stay in freshwater over the winter. Unlike Pacific salmon, Arctic char females lay eggs every 2-3 years and neither sexes die after spawning. Males are usually the first to swim upstream to the spawning grounds in order to defend a piece of territory to attract females. Females will then invade the “best” territory and begin to dig a nest in the gravel substrate, called a redd. Here, she and the male whose territory she invaded will lay and fertilize eggs over a period of several days. Their eggs will overwinter in these redds until the following spring or summer when they emerge as small fish or fry.

Canadian wild caught fisheries for Arctic char are primarily located in Nunavut, mostly in Cambridge Bay and Cumberland Sound. Cambridge Bay is also where the first commercial Arctic char fishery was established in the 1960s. Arctic char are important not only to commercial fisheries, but also to Inuit subsistence fisheries and communities.  The most common methods used for catching Arctic char are gillnets and weirs placed throughout river systems in the Canadian Arctic.

Farmed Arctic char is a growing industry in Canada, especially in First Nation, Inuit and other remote northern communities. They are farmed in both land-based and ocean pen systems in many provinces and territories across Canada for their meat and eggs, both of which are exported to countries around the world.

Rising ocean temperatures have created reason for concern for the Inuit subsistence Arctic char fisheries. Changing ocean temperatures may cause variability in historical fishing grounds, particularly in the rapidly changing Arctic, as fish move elsewhere to find suitable spawning and feeding grounds.

There is a relatively small amount of research on the population status of Arctic char in Canada. Under the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) they are listed as Least Concern, but they have not yet been assessed by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). 

Due to climate change and rising ocean temperatures, many warmer water species are starting to colonize northern waters, which could pose a competitive threat to Arctic char. This has been called climate-driven range expansion and is particularly important to consider when managing conservation efforts of Arctic species, such as the Arctic char. 

Most aquaculture operations for Arctic char are land-based and pose relatively low risks to wild Arctic char populations. However, if there was an expansion of open ocean aquaculture pens for it or other species into areas that overlap with wild Arctic char, it could pose additional risks to wild Arctic char populations.

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