Research Project

This research project was started by Karen Dunmall, a PhD student at the University of Manitoba in collaboration with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, to address the issue of salmon being captured in the Canadian Arctic in more places and in seemingly higher numbers in recent years.

Study Area:

We are interested in salmon caught anywhere in the Canadian Arctic. This includes the Beaufort Sea, Mackenzie Delta, Mackenzie River and all tributaries, Great Bear Lake and Great Slave Lake. If you have caught a salmon, please turn it in for reward.

How do we get our salmon?

As salmon are still relatively rare, we rely on salmon turned in by community members through our reward program to obtain salmon.

Why are the salmon in the Canadian Arctic?

That is the big question. There have always been a small number of Chum Salmon in the Mackenzie River. However, there seems to be more and more Chum Salmon caught, especially recently. Other species of salmon are appearing as well. We don't know why ... yet. That is why we are doing this research project. It may be related to climate change. As the Arctic gets warmer, the salmon may be able spawn successfully in different places they couldn't before. More young (juvenile) salmon may be able to survive with the warmer temperatures. More salmon may be arriving from other places as well, because they are "lost" or are exploring. Salmon use freshwater rivers and the ocean during their life (learn more about their life-cycle). Therefore, the appearance of the salmon in the Canadian Arctic may indicate a change in the ocean, the freshwater or both.

What are we doing with the salmon?

We will use the salmon to try and answer questions such as:

1) What is the basic biology of salmon in the Arctic?

We currently assume that the salmon in the Arctic are doing what the salmon in the Pacific Ocean do, but we don't know if that is true. We would like to know how long the salmon stay in the freshwater before they spawn, if their life-cycle is similar in Arctic salmon to those from the Pacific Ocean, when they enter the rivers to spawn, when the juvenile salmon emerge from their spawning nests, when the juvenile salmon head to the ocean, how long the juvenile salmon stay in the freshwater. There are many more questions. To learn more about the basic life-cycle of Pacific salmon, go here. Chum Salmon spawning

2) Where are the salmon in the Canadian Arctic coming from?

There are suspected spawning populations of Chum Salmon on the Liard River, the Slave River and the Peel River. It is possible that these spawning sites are producing the Chum Salmon that people are catching in the Canadian Arctic. It is also possible that the salmon are getting "lost" from other places where they were headed to spawn and have arrived in the Mackenzie River as vagrant salmon. Perhaps it is a combination of both options. Perhaps there is another explanation altogether. Hopefully we'll see.

3) Where do the juvenile salmon go in the ocean once they leave the rivers?

There are several options: a) the salmon stay in the Arctic Ocean; b) the salmon head to the Bering Sea of Alaska; 3) the salmon do a combination of both; d) the salmon do none of the above. We will be using otoliths, a rock-like structure (technically a calcified structure) in the head of a salmon (see photo at right) to try and address this question.

Removing the otoliths (at arrow)

4) What does this mean for native fish species?

The appearance of salmon in the Canadian Arctic may affect other fish species.

Salmon may be competing with other fish species for the limited resources in the North. Salmon are looking for the same spawning sites that other fish species are seeking. The juvenile salmon may be eating the same things as the other fish species need to eat. Or, there may be more places available to spawn and more resources for all fish species with the effects of climate change. Once we know more about the salmon, we will be able to address this question.

Fishing boat, Hay River

Many other questions will come up and hopefully be addressed along the way.

What kind of progress has been made?

The research formally started in September 2011 and we are working as quickly as we can to get some information and get it back to the communities. Wondering about progress and results?

Where do you get the money to do this work?

Karen receives funding from NSERC, and the project receives funding from many sources including Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the Sahtu Renewable Resources Board, the Cumulative Impacts Monitoring Program, the Gwich'in Renewable Resources Board, and the Gwich'in Land Use Planning Board.

Arctic Sunset