Which fish live in Arctic Canada? Thanks to new book, we finally know

Greenland Halibut (Reinhardtius hippoglossoides) is the dominant fish predator in the Eastern Arctic, having moved into the niche occupied by Atlantic Cod in the North Atlantic. (John L. Tottenham/Canadian Museum of Nature)
The mysteries of the fishes that live in the Canadian Arctic are unravelled in a new book that provides a baseline that will help understand how they are affected by climate change.

The book was co-edited by scientists from the Canadian Museum of Nature and the government department Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

First curator dove Arctic waters

“Starting with our first curator of fishes, Don McAllister, (he) started in 1958 and, unlike other ichthyologists (fish scientists) of his time, looked to the north and started collecting,”  says Noel Alfonso, a researcher at the Canadian Museum of Nature. “He would go up there. He scuba dived, he piloted research vessels and he built up tremendous collections of Arctic fishes.”

Feature interview

Noel Alfonso, researcher at the Canadian Museum of Nature, on publishing the book.

Book includes indigenous knowledge

Indigenous knowledge was included in the book through consultations in Arctic communities and with Inuit who are employed in many of the government’s fisheries stations and offices in the North.

Hartel’s Swallower (Chiasmodon harteli). The line drawing of this deep-sea fish shows the its prey inside the stomach. (Canadian Museum of Nature)

There are photos, drawings, extensive scientific information, descriptions of cultural importance and maps that show the range of each of 221 species of fish found in the Canadian Arctic. Their names are listed in English, French, Inuktituk (language of the indigenous Inuit people) and Greenlandic or Danish.

Arctic cod is ‘little but…mighty’
Arctic Cod is the ecological engine of the Arctic marine food web, eating phytoplankton and zooplankton, often in a sympagic (under-ice) environment. Predators include other fishes, marine mammals and seabirds. (Canadian MUseum of Nature)

Among the fishes described is the Arctic cod found all through the Canadian and the larger Arctic.

“It is the most important species there because it exists in vast numbers…in a unique environment…which is under the ice,” says Alfonso.

“They feed on zooplankton and phytoplankton that grows under the ice and everything in the Arctic eats Arctic cod either directly or indirectly—narwhals, Greenland halibut, seals. Polar bears eat them indirectly when they’re eating seals.

“They’re super important. They’re little but they’re mighty.”

Strong agreements, more monitoring needed, says researcher
Large-eye Snaggletooth (Borostomias antarcticus) is found in Davis Strait, in southwest and southeast Greenland, along the Atlantic coast of Canada and in all major oceans. (Susan Laurie-Bourque/Canadian Museum of Nature)

Arctic fish are harvested in small numbers and eaten by people in Arctic communities. Sixteen Arctic nations signed an agreement in December 2017 to prohibit large-scale commercial fishing for at least 16 years. I asked Alfonso whether he is confident the fishes will be protected as the climate changes, ice melts and it becomes easier for ships to come through.

“For now, yes. But we have to keep international agreements strong and we need to do more monitoring in the Arctic.”

The 600-page Marine Fishes of Arctic Canada is published by the University of Toronto Press.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada:  Ocean acidification could doom key Arctic fish species: study, Radio Canada International

Iceland:  Meeting in Iceland discusses banning unregulated Arctic fishery, Eye on the Arctic

Greenland: Can we still avert irreversible ice sheet melt?, Deutsche Welle’s Ice-Blog

Norway:  Deal protects Arctic waters around Svalbard, Norway from fishing, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: Siberian erosion, river runoff speeds up Arctic Ocean acidification, Alaska Dispatch News

Sweden:  Record numbers for Swedish wild salmon, Radio Sweden

United States:  Fishing ban in international Arctic waters remains elusive, Alaska Dispatch News

Lynn Desjardins, Radio Canada International

Born and raised in Montreal, Quebec, Lynn has dedicated her working life to journalism. After decades in the field, she still believes journalism to be a pillar of democracy and she remains committed to telling stories she believes are important or interesting. Lynn loves Canada and embraces all seasons: skiing, skating, and sledding in winter, hiking, swimming and playing tennis in summer and running all the time. She is a voracious consumer of Canadian literature, public radio programs and classical music. Family and friends are most important. Good and unusual foods are fun. She travels when possible and enjoys the wilderness.

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