Salmon frenzy in western Arctic reaches historic high

The Arctic Salmon Project collected 2,400 samples from the western Arctic this year — more than the past 20 years combined.

Researchers collected 2,400 Arctic salmon samples this year

One of 2,400 salmon samples collected by the Arctic Salmon Project this year. (Submitted by Kevin Chan)

The salmon frenzy that started in the western Arctic earlier this year has gone on to reach a historic high. 

Fisheries and Oceans Canada has been studying Arctic salmon populations since 2000, and collects samples every year as part of the Arctic Salmon Project. This year, 2,400 salmon were submitted to the department.

Last year, less than 100 salmon were collected from western Arctic waters.

Karen Dunmall, a biologist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, said they got more salmon from harvesters in the western Arctic and Nunavut this year than in the last 20 years combined.

She said they also found that salmon appeared earlier than normal.

Dunmall said years when they would see lots of salmon were once "exceptional," but high counts are becoming more of a regular thing.

"So the highs are becoming more high and they're becoming closer together," said Dunmall. "This year was an exceptionally high high."

Dunmall said they heard from people that there was more ice in the water last summer, compared to this year, when there was no ice.

"So the salmon are responding to environmental variability and change," said Dunmall. "Generally, things are warming up, but there are lots of other cues that the salmon are responding to."

Dunmall said people caught salmon everywhere in the western Arctic, from Sachs Harbour and Banks Island, to all the way up the Mackenzie River in Fort Smith.

Each community in the Beaufort Delta region offered grocery gift cards in exchange for up to 10 whole salmon samples, as well as an unlimited number of fish heads.

Fisheries and Oceans then evaluates the samples to gather more information about Arctic salmon — including why their numbers are booming in the first place.

Chum salmon like these accounted for the vast majority of samples. (Shaun Strobel/Skipper Otto's)

'Pretty crazy' catch in Norman Wells

Norman Wells resident Kevin Kivi has only been fishing for about three years. Last year, he caught no salmon, so it was quite a shock for him catch nearly 100 salmon this summer.

"There was a period where I put my net in for just over a week… and in those eight days it was 73 salmon I caught," said Kivi.

He said the size of his catch grew over the course of the season, until he was pulling in 17 fish every time. He said catching big schools of fish like that is unusual.

"It was pretty crazy, the amount that were coming," he said.

Kivi said that usually he catches lots of whitefish, but this year, he only caught about four.

He tends to give a lot of his fish to elders and other community members in town, or keep them for his family.

However, he said he feels it's important to help Fisheries and Oceans with their research "to find out why they are coming up here."

Researchers from Fisheries and Oceans Canada recruited students at Norman Wells' Mackenzie Mountain School to help catalogue the samples. (Submitted by Kevin Chan)

Community helps with sampling

The large number of samples meant that the Arctic Salmon Project had to rely on the help of community members to process the whole catch.

The territorial department of Environment and Natural Resources partnered with Mackenzie Mountain School in Norman Wells to help with monitoring.

Kevin Chan, a regional biologist with the department in the Sahtu, said kids at the school played a crucial role in collecting the samples.

The department taught them about the science behind the work of fisheries monitoring and management.

Chan said the students measured the heads, recorded data about where and when the salmon were caught, and collected muscle tissue and bones from the ear of the salmon.

Fisheries and Oceans will be continuing the salmon project next year, and hope harvesters continue to submit salmon samples and inform them if they see anything unusual.


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