Quirks & Quarks

Will the water be too warm for fish to spawn? Studying climate change and Arctic char

A researcher studying Arctic char in Nunavut attracts a following of hungry bears, wolves and Arctic fox.
Matthew Gilbert, a University of British Columbia researcher releases an Arctic Char at Byron Bay filed site. (Matthew Gilbert)

Studying arctic char in a warming world

The Arctic char is a vital resource for northern communities, which makes understanding how climate change will affect the fish a high priority for researchers like Mathew Gilbert. 

Char are close relatives of salmon and share with salmon the pattern of seasonal migration to spawn in freshwater rivers. However as the Arctic warms at a rate twice that of southerly regions, those rivers are warming, and warm water puts stress on the fish. 

Gilbert, a PhD candidate in Zoology at the University of British Columbia spent this summer studying Arctic char at several field sites around Nunavut, including Byron Bay about 100 km from Cambridge Bay. He's been investigating how rising water temperatures impact the char's metabolism, including their ability to take in oxygen and how their hearts perform on their strenuous migratory trips. 

Matthew Gilbert at the Byron Bay mobile lab and camp site. (Matthew Gilbert)

The mobile lab

There are no roads to his research sites, so Gilbert is flown in by float plane to a mobile lab set up on the shores of Byron Bay. The lab is a remodelled shipping container designed and built by the Arctic Research Foundation. It's equipped with solar panels and wind turbines for power, and all the essentials for conducting field experiments.

The lab is dragged over the ice in winter by a bulldozer and put in place on the tundra. Gilbert and his research companions — including local Inuit from Cambridge Bay whose knowledge is essential to the work — don't have luxury accomodation. They rough it in tents.
A lone wolf creates a 'dances with wolves' moment at Byron Bay. (Matthew Gilbert)

A crowd gathers

Byron Bay is known primarily for its local commercial fishing as well as guided hunting.  Wildlife is plentiful, and curious, no doubt attracted by the char the researchers catch. Gilbert recounts encounters with grizzly bears which they quickly acted to shoo away. A lone wolf became a regular visitor, keeping an eye on the camp and the strange doings. An Arctic fox, completely unconcerned with human activity, made a meal of char remains until frightened away by the arrival of the float plane. And the camp's resident pesky weasel added to the challenge of conducting research in the mobile lab. 

Raw video: A hungry Arctic fox visits the research camp on Byron Bay, Nunavut.

4 years ago
Duration 0:23
Raw video: A hungry Arctic fox visits the research camp on Byron Bay, Nunavut.