North

Odd colouring in Nunavut's Arctic char leaves fishermen stumped

Arctic char is a staple of many Nunavut fishermen's catch, but something's different this year, with a strange colouration prompting plenty of theories, but few answers.

‘A lot of the fish are not red in flesh, they’re more pink,’ says Iqaluit-based angler

'They’re a lot bigger this year and they are whiter,' says Joe Hess, owner of Iqaluit’s Nunavut Country Food. (Sima Sahar Zerehi/CBC)

Arctic char is a staple of many Nunavut fishermen's catch, but something's different this year, with a strange colouration prompting plenty of theories, but few answers.

Many anglers in Iqaluit including, Adla Itorcheak, say the Arctic char they're catching this summer is different in colour and size. (Sima Sahar Zerehi/CBC)
Anglers are saying that a growing number of char this year are not their traditional deep red, instead being a much lighter pink colour — which is also causing a difference in taste.

"A lot of the fish are not red in flesh, they're more pink," says Adla Itorcheak, an avid fisherman in Iqaluit.

"They're a lot bigger this year, and they are whiter," says Joe Hess, the owner of Nunavut Country Food, Iqaluit's only wild food store.

The change hasn't gone unnoticed by the government. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans is sampling Arctic char for the second year in a row. Chris Lewis, an aquatic science biologist with the department, says that he's "definitely seen a few fish with that paler flesh."

The whiter char, Hess believes, are often fished from around Frobisher Bay or land-locked lakes, rather than ocean-accessible lakes.

He says that on average, they are about 900 grams bigger than typical Arctic char, which come in at around 1.8 kilograms.

Walter Hess from Nunavut Country Food shows the difference in colour in two pieces of pitsi, or dried Arctic char. (Sima Sahar Zerehi/CBC)

Dolly Varden?

Some people in Iqaluit believe that the pale fish they're catching may not be Arctic char at all, but Dolly Varden trout. 

Dolly Vardens are typically found in the Western Arctic — not as far east as Iqaluit. They travel in the Mackenzie River off the Arctic Ocean and west along the Bering Sea, as far as the North Pacific along the coast of British Columbia.

DFO has been sampling Arctic char for the second year in a row. A biologist from the department believes the change in char colouring has to do with their diet. (Sima Sahar Zerehi/CBC)
Lewis says it would be unusual to see the trout in waters near Frobisher Bay, two to three thousand kilometres away from their eastern range.

"They're so far from here," says Lewis. "I'd be very surprised."

Lewis says that a more likely explanation for the paler fish is a change in their diet, saying that fishers in the community of Pangnirtung had made similar observations about char in Cumberland Sound.

"The fish there were eating a lot of capelin," he says — a small forage fish of the smelt family which has increased in abundance in Cumberland Sound over the past decade.

A capelin diet, Lewis explains, means that char aren't eating food sources that are responsible for their red colouration, such as crustaceans.

"If they're eating a lot of crustaceans," he says, "they're absorbing the pigments that are responsible for that really orangey, almost red flesh colour."

Lewis is asking anyone who catches any unusual fish to take a photo and if possible to share sample with the DFO office for testing.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sima Sahar Zerehi is a reporter with CBC North. She started her career in journalism with the ethnic press working for a Canadian-based Farsi language newspaper. Her CBC journey began as a regular commentator with CBC radio's Metro Morning. Since then she's worked with CBC in Montreal, Toronto and now Iqaluit.

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