Arctic Salmon

Story by Mark Hume with Photography by Margaret Munro

The Inuit village of Sachs Harbour lies on the southern tip of Banks Island in the central Canadian Arctic, about 500 miles East of the Alaska-Yukon border. It is way out there in the middle of nowhere and about as far from salmon country as you can get.

The High Arctic from the Air

A decade ago, however, the subsistence fishermen who set nets for Arctic char at river mouths around Sachs Harbour pulled in some interesting fish. There, thrashing in the nets with the brilliantly colored char they’d come to expect, where eight beautiful silver and green fish of a kind they’d never seen before. The fish were later identified as sockeye and pink salmon – and they were sexually mature.

The Pacific salmon shouldn’t have been there, searching for a river to spawn in on the usually frozen coast of Banks Island, but they were and that catch, as it turns out, is a far from isolated event in the rapidly changing Arctic.

All across the far north there have been incidental catches of salmon like that enough to suggest that salmon are starting to colonize the High Arctic. All five species of Pacific salmon have been found in the Arctic, moving in from the West along the north coast of Alaska, while Atlantics are straying in from the East around the northern tip of Quebec.

Fisheries scientists who have been tracking the phenomenon say it is unclear yet whether there is a growing trend, driven by global warming, or whether there are just more reports because people are looking harder. They do note, however, that if Arctic waters warm just a few more degrees vast new habitat will open up to both Pacific and Atlantic salmon. Scientists studying marine mollusks recently noted that a cold water wedge in the Bering Sea that has acted as a barrier to many species has begun to change, literally opening the door to an interoceanic invasion by many species. Geerat Vermeiji, of the University of California and Peter Roopnarine, at the California Academy of Sciences, forecast that a massive marine migration, similar to one that happened during the warm Pliocene epoch, 3.5 million years ago, could take place as early as 2050.

Pingo on Mackenzie Delta

It is unlikely that salmon fishermen will be packing their rods for trips to the High Arctic any time soon. But with polar ice shelves melting at increasingly rapid rates, and northern watersheds warming steadily, it may well be that future fishermen will dream not about trips to Labrador or Alaska but to rivers like the mighty Mackenzie, a brawling, silt-stained river in the western Arctic, the dramatic Coppermine, which runs through the sweeping tundra of the central Arctic, or to the Innuksuak, a char river that flows into Hudson Bay in the Nunavik region of Quebec. Pacific salmon have been caught throughout the Mackenzie system, in such numbers that spawning populations are now thought to exist, while small numbers of strays have been taken near the mouth of the Coppermine. On the Innuksuak over a five year period 160 Atlantic salmon were recorded in native catches enough each year to suggest the fish have established a run in the river, well West of what was thought to be the extreme range of Atlantics. Salmon have now been encountered at several locations on the Hudson Bay coast.

Researchers say if Pacific and Atlantic salmon are beginning to colonize the Arctic it only makes sense, because salmon naturally extend their range by wandering, and they are now clearly wandering far north of Katzebue Sound, in Alaska and Ungava Bay, in northern Quebec.

Researchers with the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, in Canada, have for several years been offering cash rewards to entice native fishermen in the Arctic to turn in any salmon they catch. That effort, together with an increasing amount of data coming in from environmental impact studies being done by resource companies exploring for oil and gas, has led to an increasing number of verified reports of salmon.

Scientists are quick to say that increase could be a result of a greater effort to gather data but they also say there are repeatedly big enough numbers in some areas to conclude salmon have established breeding populations.

It is now widely accepted, for example, that all five species of Pacific salmon have successfully spawned in rivers on Alaska’s north coast. Those rivers were until relatively recently thought to beyond the natural range of the species and they appear to have already provided a jumping off point for salmon incursions deeper into the Arctic. DNA testing is underway to test that theory.

Although researchers have yet to find any active spawning beds in the Canadian Arctic, breeding populations of chum and pink salmon are thought to exist in the Mackenzie River, which flows from Great Slave Lake, through Canada’s Northwest Territories to the Beaufort Sea, near Inuvik.

Pingo on Mackenzie Delta
Thousands of chum have been caught at different times in subsistence fisheries in Akalvik, Fort MacPherson and Fort Good Hope three wide spread communities that lie along the Mackenzie. Many of those fish have been laden with eggs or milt.

Smaller numbers of other species, including Chinook, coho and sockeye, have been caught throughout the Mackenzie system.

Although salmon in the Mackenzie aren’t great in numbers they have been found so far upstream, including in Great Bear and Great Slave Lakes, that it has to raise hopes that the second longest river in North America, after the Mississippi, might one day become a salmon producer.

With rainbow trout also found straying into the Mackenzie system, one has to wonder if Arctic steelhead fishing might one day be possible, as well.

In a 2006 paper on climate change, published by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, a group of seven researches, led by James Reist, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, noted that for fish to extend their range habitat suitability, food supply, predators and pathogens must be within the limits of the niche boundaries of the species.

In other words, many things have to fall into line before salmon can colonize the Arctic.

The paper concludes, however, that climatic changes are rapidly making the north more favorable to the survival of many salmonids.

Several species present in southern areas, such as native Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) and brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) and introduced brown trout (Salmo trutta) and rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) are very likely to extend their ranges northward, the scientists predict.

In a paper published by The Arctic Institute of North America, Alaskan researchers Peter Craig and Lewis Haldorson reported that by 1985 pink and chum salmon had already established themselves in a few north coast rivers.

We suspect that they spawn successfully and maintain small but viable populations in at least some Arctic drainages, they reported.

Erin Hiebert-Linn, a graduate student at Royal Roads University, in British Columbia, is studying Pacific salmon in the western Arctic. She says water temperatures are rising, but remain low enough to still present an environmental hurdle for salmon. Interestingly, the species that have a higher tolerance for cold water, such as chum and pink salmon, are showing up most frequently in the Mackenzie drainage, where they are suspected of spawning. If temperatures keep creeping up, as predicted, they could be followed by other species.

Chum salmon and pink salmon have the widest thermal ranges as to what they’ll accept for temperatures. So if there’s going to be anything [establishing viable runs] it will definitely be chum. . .and pink salmon would be the next most likely species, she said in an interview.

Chum and pink are the species spawning successfully now in the Mackenzie; a few more degrees of annual warmth and sockeye, coho and Chinook will no doubt follow.

Jim Irvine, a researcher with Canada’s DFO, says it is natural for salmon to wander and it may be that a few were always wandering around the Arctic. He’s not convinced there is a species migration underway, but says it is fair to speculate that salmon will colonize the Arctic when conditions are right.

With retreating ice it means you are getting more sunlight into Arctic waters and presumably that will result in an increase in primary and secondary productivity and a warming of the waters. So it may make conditions more suitable for salmon rearing, he said in an interview.

Let’s not forget that 10,000 years ago Vancouver was covered by 2,000 feet of ice, he continued. So basically all the salmon in British Columbia and the Yukon and Alaska have distributed themselves and developed over the last 2,000 years. So it’s not difficult to think they are continuing that redistribution. And with climate change one would expect this would happen.

Not everyone thinks fisheries managers should be waiting around to let nature take its time. As early as 1973, P.O. Salonius, a research officer with the Canadian Forestry Service in New Brunswick, noted the great potential of Arctic rivers in a paper titled Barriers to Range Extension of Atlantic and Pacific Salmon in Arctic North America.

Mr. Salonius noted the Ungava Peninsula appeared to have blocked Atlantic salmon from expanding into rivers in Hudson Bay that seemed ideally suited for Atlantic salmon, with clean water, extensive spawning gravel and abundant feed in the ocean.

He also thought the western Arctic had huge potential, if Pacific salmon could make it around the northern tip of Alaska and suggested Great Slave Lake, on the Mackenzie River, could be developed into a salmon factory to rival the Bristol Bay lakes.

The area may have the capacity to support spawning runs numbering in the millions, he said.

Caribou near a watering hole

Mr. Salonius suggested enhancement efforts be undertaken to help salmon overcome the geographic barriers that were keeping them out of the vast Arctic. That suggestion wasn’t followed up on by Canadian authorities, but in the three decades since that paper was written, climate change has made the Arctic more attractive to salmon, and fish are starting to make the move on their own.

Massive change is coming to the Arctic. And while the melting ice cap will make it perilous for some species, it will create ideal conditions for others. For salmon, and for salmon anglers, it could well be that the future lies in the far north.