Dirty water may be reason for 'very strange' shortage of fish harvest, says N.W.T. angler

Anglers in Aklavik, N.W.T., are trying to figure out why there was a shortage of fish in local hotspots this year.

Traditional knowledge indicates dirty water could be the reason, says Michelle Gruben

Two groups comprised of Inuvialuit, Gwich'in and Department of Fisheries and Oceans members completed their harvest this season. Their data shows drastic changes in the amount of fish swimming in community hotspots. (Submitted by Jordan McLeod)

Anglers in Aklavik, N.W.T., are trying to figure out why there was a shortage of fish in local hotspots this year.

"It's very strange," said Michelle Gruben from the Aklavik Hunters and Trappers Committee.

Gruben said there were two teams of people harvesting fish from the region —​ Inuvialuit and Gwich'in members partnered with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

This year, one group went fishing on Herschel Island off the coast of Yukon, while the other stayed local in the N.W.T.

There were more fish caught in the Arctic Ocean than in the hotspots around the community, said Gruben.

For example, six char were caught at one of the main fishing spots, Shingle Point, this year — something Gruben called abnormal.

"We have a char monitor out at Shingle Point and that number there too was pretty low, really low, like we don't know what happened," she said.

"I think the population is fine and dandy, I just don't know what happened with fishing around the community."

Gruben added it is possible the groups in the community could have just missed the fish as they swam into the region but, but she thinks it's more likely dirty water around Shingle Point might be to blame.

As harvesters flew back from Herschel Island to Aklavik they noticed a difference in water conditions, said Gruben.  

"You could clearly see in the ocean where there was clear water around Herschel and Shingle Point was dirty water," Gruben said. "That tells you I guess that when ice is around the water is clearer and fish like to feed from what's at the bottom of the ice."  

Traditional knowledge salvages harvest

The low numbers of char in Aklavik were offset by a traditional spot which is known by the Inuvialuit to have a lot of fish.

Gruben said a helicopter of Inuvialuit members and Fisheries and Oceans went to Big Fish River, located just near the Yukon border and brought back 190 Dolly Varden char.   

"People were so excited, they could taste that fish before it came to their house," she said.

The char haul gave the hunters and trappers committee the ability to provide their members two fish per household.

Aklavik fish shortage not just char

In addition to the char, the Inuvialuit and Gwich'in in Aklavik are noticing a lack of salmon and herring this season, said Gruben.

Anglers usually pull out roughly 80 salmon per harvest, she said. This year there has not been a single one.

Traditional knowledge says the fish could be avoiding dirty water, but Gruben added climate change might also be playing a factor.  

The CBC put in a request for comment to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans but was not given a response before Monday morning.