Arctic Char

Arctic char
Illustration by DFO
Arctic char
Latin Name:
Salvelinus alpinus (L.)
Group Name:
Arctic Ocean
Fishing Gear:
Gillnets and weirs
Fishing Season:

Species at a Glance

Arctic char are distributed across the Canadian Arctic Ocean including around the islands of the Arctic Archipelago. While this species may also be found in many rivers and lakes located in Canada’s Far North, the sea-run Arctic char are the most sought after for food and commercial uses.

Arctic char are an important cultural, subsistence and economic resource in the Arctic. There are a number of commercial fisheries taking place in the ocean tidal waters and river waters, as well as many subsistence fisheries for Canada’s Inuit.

Arctic char are a highly priced delicacy, marketed mainly fresh and frozen as whole-dressed fish and steaks. A small quantity is also processed into value–added products including smoked char and jerky.

Commercial landings were 57 tonnes in 2012 , 52 tonnes in 2011, 29.4 tonnes in 2010 and 31.8 in 2009.
Landed value was $186,000 in 2012, $175,550 in 2011, $118,000 in 2010 and $133,367 in 2009.
Abundance status and Trends:
Data is limited given the geographic distribution and nature of the fisheries. However, there are indications that the commercial stocks are stable.
A number of commercial fisheries take place in various river systems throughout the Canadian Arctic, with the majority occurring in Nunavut such as Cumberland Sound and Cambridge Bay areas. There are also exploratory fisheries to examine potential for future commercial char fishing areas.
Conservation measures:
Arctic char fisheries in the Canadian Arctic are managed in co-operation with respective co-management partners. Conservation measures for commercial fisheries include minimum gillnet mesh size and total harvest levels.

Species Background

Arctic char have the most northerly distribution of any freshwater fish. This species has a body shape typical of most salmonids and exhibits great variability in form and colouration. In the Cambridge Bay area, for example, spawners have an orange back, sides, and belly, and the intensity of colour is most pronounced in males. Arctic char may be anadromous, moving downstream to the sea in spring and returning in the fall or may remain permanently in freshwater.

Spawning takes place in freshwater in September or October, over gravel beds. Females typically spawn every two to three years. Males arrive first on the spawning grounds to establish and defend their territories. Females arrive later and are courted by the males before proceeding to dig a nest or ‘redd’ in waters between three to six meters deep to deposit their eggs. These eggs incubate under the ice for about six months. Fry emerge from the gravel in mid-July and are about 25 millimeters long.

In most river systems, anadromous Arctic char first migrate to sea when they are four to five years of age and reach a size of 150 to 250 mm. The young char feed mainly on freshwater shrimp and insect larvae, while adults feed on small fish and bottom organisms such as snails, clams and insect larvae. Once at sea, char feed on invertebrates and fishes. In the fall, char return to freshwater to overwinter and escape from freezing in the sea.


Arctic char fisheries are important for the Inuit and in the subsistence economy of many circumpolar people. These fisheries are concentrated near communities and are predominately conducted using gillnets. In 2004, it was estimated that the subsistence harvest in the Cambridge Bay area was about 50 percent the size of the commercial harvest.

The very first commercial fishing effort of Arctic char began in Cambridge Bay (Figure 1) with a gillnet operation in 1960 at Freshwater Creek, which produced a harvest of 2,000 kilograms. A number of fisheries today also take place around Cumberland Sound (Figure 2).

Conservation Measures

The Arctic char fisheries in the Nunavut Settlement Area are co-managed by the Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board, Regional Wildlife Organizations, and Hunter and Trapper Organizations, in accordance with the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement, the Fisheries Act and its Regulations, and in some communities, by local Hunter and Trapper Organization bylaws. This ensures that the best available information guides Arctic char fishery management decisions. Integrated Fishery Management Plans are also in development for the main Arctic char commercial fisheries.

Commercial Arctic char fisheries in Nunavut are subject to a range of management measures designed to promote the sustainability and conservation of the char resource. Conservation measures include, but are not limited to, minimum gillnet mesh size, total harvest levels, and community-based monitoring.

The management of these fisheries is complicated by the lack of harvesting data, the widespread distribution, and biological complexity of Arctic char. New approaches using life-history parameters, as well as harvest and habitat information are being developed.

Char fishing areas in Cambridge Bay
Figure 1. Char fishing areas near Cambridge Bay

Figure 1 is captioned “Char fishing areas near Cambridge Bay”. It is a map illustration showing the geography of a select area in Nunavut south of Victoria Island. The map covers select geographical waterways and land features north and south of (from left to right) Coronation Gulf, Wellington Bay, Starvation Cove, Cambridge Bay and Queen Maud Gulf). The purpose of the map is to show 13 fishing sites, which are marked with a flag, one community (Cambridge Bay) which is marked with a circle, and eight spawning sites for Arctic Char, which are marked with an “S”. The 13 fishing sites are located at: 1-2) the mouth of the Lauchlan River and at Starvation Cove in Coronation Gulf; 3-5) the mouths of the Halovik, Paliryuak, and Ekalluk Rivers in Wellington Bay; 6) the mouth of the Jayco River from Jayco Lake; 7) Padliak Inlet; 8) the entry to HTA Lake from Padliak Inlet; 9) off the Collinson Peninsula (near Padliak Inlet); 10) Elu Inlet off Kent Peninsula; 11-12) the mouths of the Kulgayak and Ellice Rivers close to Dease Point in the Queen Maud Gulf; and 13) near the mouth of the Perry River in the Queen Maud Gulf. The eight spawning sites are located on Victoria Island: 1) north of the Paliryuak River; 2) at the edge of Wellington Bay; 3) north east of Starvation Cove; 4-5) north and north east of Cambridge Bay; 6) on the western edge of the Queen Maud Gulf; and 7-8) in-land between Jayco Lake and Wellington Bay. There is a smaller map insert to show where the Arctic char fishing areas are in the broader Northwest Territories and Territory of Nunavut geography.

Cumberland Sound showing the Isuituq River system and Pangnirtung
Figure 2. Cumberland Sound showing the Isuituq River system and Pangnirtung (primary resource users of the Isuituq system)

Figure 2 is captioned “Cumberland Sound showing the Isuituq River system and Pangnirtung community”. It is a map of the Isuituq River System showing the Pangnirtung community on the Cumberland Sound of Baffin Island. A smaller insert map is also shown to situate the feature map in the broader Territory of Nunavut.

Landings – Historical view:

Commercial landings in the Cambridge Bay region (eight areas) fluctuated from 39,000 kg in 1985 to 22,800 kg in 2003. The Queen Maud Gulf area has averaged about 5,000 kg, while in the Albert Edward Bay area, landings recorded from 1985 to 2003 have reached a high of 17,000 kg.

Population Estimates

DFO scientists, external experts and fish harvesters regularly review Arctic char stock assessments and the results are published on the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat website. Although these are data-poor stocks, the biological data collected from the fishery indicates a wide range of size and ages are present, with no loss of older age classes. This suggests that current levels of exploitation are likely sustainable.

Information about the condition and status of the oceans is also collected to better understand the effect of environmental conditions on char populations. For example, research activities have assessed: char biodiversity and trophic (feeding) variation in the Canadian North and its role in ecosystem structuring and function; the thermal ecology (temperature histories) of chars and how climate change might affect these; the link between climate change and the bioaccumulation of mercury; and changes in char populations as directly observed through community-based monitoring.

Additional Information

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