Scientists examine Arctic salmon numbers’ rollercoaster ride

High water levels and natural cycles may explain why a study of Arctic salmon received more than 2,200 fish in 2019 but fewer than 10 this year, researchers say.

The Arctic Salmon Project is designed to study salmon in the far north of the NWT and Nunavut over a two-decade span. The study involves harvesters submitting heads of fish to scientists.

By this time last year, around 1,800 salmon heads had been received from the communities of Aklavik, Sachs Harbour, and Ulukhaktok. This year, you can count the samples on two hands.


“Salmon do naturally cycle in abundance as a part of their life history,” said aquatic science biologist Darcy McNicholl.

“The thing with them in the Arctic is we’re still in the early stages of learning what their life history characteristics are in the region, and as they start to colonize different parts of the Arctic.”

Research on Arctic salmon remains embryonic. McNicholl said it’s too soon to know what an average yearly number of salmon should look like.

Still, with 2018 being a low year and 2019 being a high year, she said she “wasn’t surprised” that 2020 is also proving to be a low year.

“If I had to make a prediction, I would expect 2021 to be a busier year,” she said.


Another possible reason for the low number of salmon in 2020 is the increase in water levels across the North.

McNicholl said the high water has made it difficult for fishing to go ahead as normal, especially for people in communities on the Beaufort Sea.

“They haven’t been fishing as intensely because the water levels haven’t been ideal,” she explained.

The slow season is giving the researchers time to catch up on processing the thousands of salmon samples submitted last year – a task delayed when their lab was temporarily shut down by the Covid-19 pandemic earlier this year.


Findings from studies of last year’s salmon will appear in a newsletter posted to the researchers’ Facebook page.

If harvesters catch any salmon this year, researchers encourage them to submit the fish or fish heads to their local salmon coordinators in exchange for a gift card.

A whole salmon gets a fisher $50 – up to 10 fish are accepted per community – and a salmon head is exchanged for a $25 gift card.