Researchers seeing more and more southern salmon in the North say 2019 should be another big year for netting the fish across the Arctic.
Federal biologist Darcy McNicholl and student Zander Chila are in Tuktoyaktuk as part of the Arctic Salmon project, led by Dr Karen Dunmall. They're seeing significant change in the number of salmon reaching the far north.
“We're working with people who fish for subsistence species, such as char and whitefish, and every now and then they catch a salmon,” McNicholl told Cabin Radio.
“What we're trying to do is answer questions about what this change means for these coastal communities, because we’re noticing that Pacific salmon are increasing across the Canadian Arctic.”
The team gives out gift cards in exchange for salmon – $25 for a head or $50 for a whole fish. Up to 10 whole fish are accepted per community, while heads are unlimited. The researchers use the samples to learn more about the fish and determine their migration patterns.
Chila’s role with the project is to monitor change through studying traditional knowledge. He’s visiting the six communities in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region to hear from residents how long they've been catching salmon, and if salmon have been caught but not reported.
“We're trying to really work with communities to see how they feel about this change and what it really means for them," said Chila.
McNicholl encourages people in the NWT and Nunavut to submit salmon or salmon heads to help the team better understand the changing ecosystem.
“I think it’s an important piece of the puzzle," he said. "There's a lot of coastal change happening in Tuk and people have concerns about erosion and habitat and how the species here are changing.
"Us monitoring the salmon population and how they may interact along the coast is just a piece of that puzzle to try to understand that."
A recently published NWT Environmental Research Bulletin – a plain-language summary of NWT research findings – noted that while Chum salmon are native to the Canadian Arctic, Pacific salmon (including the Pink, Chinook, Sockeye, and Coho salmon that have been found in the NWT) are not.
“Salmon have been harvested in the new Inuvialuit Settlement Region at least since 2000, if not earlier, but what we're starting to see is a substantial increase in the number of Pacific salmon that we're catching,” said McNicholl.
“In 2017, we had the largest year of participation with the program and the largest harvest of Pacific salmon. We had close to … 800 individuals of Pacific salmon turned in across the Northwest Territories and in parts of Nunavut.”
Last year, by contrast, was quieter – across the NWT and Nunavut, fewer than 100 salmon were harvested. But in 2019, the team has already received more than that and expect reports of the fish to continue late into the summer.
Back in 2008, fewer than 20 salmon were turned in. The researchers say the increase in salmon may in part be due to awareness of the program growing.
“Already, in 2019, I know of close to 100 fish collected close to Aklavik, so we expect another large year in 2019. And we’re starting to see that here in Tuk too, people are catching quite a few salmon," said McNicholl.
Sophie Stefure, who lives in Tuktoyaktuk, caught the salmon pictured at the top of this article on July 22.
"Before I set the net that day I said to my mom, 'I wish we could catch a salmon or a char,'" Stefure wrote to Cabin Radio. She said people in Tuktoyaktuk have been catching salmon more often in recent years but her family had never caught one, despite fishing all the time.
"So I was pretty excited when we checked and there was a salmon in the net," she wrote.
Stefure says her mom, who has fished her entire life, attributes the increasing numbers of salmon to climate change.
"Things are changing ... that day, after I posted [the salmon photo], we found out that three other people caught salmon in their nets that day as well," said Stefure.
"It’s new to us for sure."
The Arctic Salmon project researchers said Pacific salmon have been caught as far north as Sachs Harbour, as far south as the North Slave region around Yellowknife, and as far east as Cambridge Bay, Nunavut.
Later this summer, the Arctic Salmon project is expanding to increase participation in Nunavut – where Atlantic and pink salmon are appearing – so researchers and communities can fully understand which species of salmon are being found across the Canadian Arctic, and how they are behaving.