With at least a month left in the harvesting season, researchers are reporting Arctic salmon numbers far higher this year than at any time since their project began in 2011.
The Arctic Salmon Project says more than 2,000 salmon harvested in the Northwest Territories this year have been documented.
Dr Karen Dunmall, the lead researcher, said that number – triple the count from any other year – “is a completely unexpected response by the salmon to, perhaps, changes that are going on in the Arctic right now.”
Dunmall told Cabin Radio: “Some are saying in Inuvik that they’re catching more salmon than whitefish this year. Other people in other communities are saying they’re catching the same number of salmon as char."
Researcher Zander Chila, who is monitoring the change by studying traditional knowledge, said some communities are only catching salmon and no char.
“There are a lot of changes that people are particularly worried about, as a result of this massive year of salmon,” he said.
“When I was in Sachs Harbour, everyone was super-engaged talking about salmon there. It was really on the forefront."
Dunmall said: “The number is big – but it’s an indicator of the bigger changes that are going on in the environment."
Salmon samples are taken by researchers in exchange for gift cards. The team is trying to answer questions from residents: where are the salmon coming from? What does this mean for native fish? And will there be more years like 2019?
“It’s definitely a collaborative effort between the harvesters and ourselves, trying to work together to collect the fish and then use the fish to answer questions that we all have,” said Dunmall.
Based on previous years, federal biologist Darcy McNicholl – also a part of the project – said the team may be about halfway through collecting salmon samples. Researchers will continue to collect heads as long as fishers continue supplying them.
“I don’t think [the number] is going to double again,” said Dunmall. “But then again, I never thought we’d get to 2,000 by now.
“It will be interesting to see how the season plays out. The salmon came early, about three weeks early compared to what we have on record for other years, and they’re not slowing down just yet.”
In addition, different kinds of salmon are now being harvested in some communities, and later in the season too.
Does that explain the salmon shark?
On September 16, John Kapakatoak caught a six-foot, 150-pound salmon shark in Kugluktuk, Nunavut.
Was the shark, which usually patrols the northern Pacific Ocean, following the thousands of salmon to the Arctic?
“It very well could be,” said McNicholl.
Fishers hold up a 150-pound salmon shark caught in Kugluktuk in mid-September. Photo: Miranda Atatahak
She said contacts at the wildlife management office in Kugluktuk have shared the shark’s stomach and DNA samples with the Arctic Salmon project.
"It's possible that the salmon shark is following salmon – they do prey on them in Alaska – or it could be a combination of that as well as the shark searching for its preferred habitat,” she said.
“This is the first time, to our knowledge, that a salmon shark has been caught in the Canadian Arctic, or possibly north of the Bering Strait."
Looking at the shark’s stomach contents will help researchers to determine if it was following salmon or eating other coastal fish.