Inuit and their research partners seek a deeper understanding of Arctic marine species, with an eye toward food security and sustainable economic development.
For the people of Gjoa Haven, a hamlet of about 1,300 on the southeast coast of Nunavut’s King William Island, Arctic char are the foundation of a healthy diet. Harvested in lakes and rivers as well as the sea, the fish are plentiful and rich in vitamin D, important considerations in a remote northern region where sunlight is limited for half the year and most fresh food has to be flown in from hundreds of kilometres away.
Fisherman James Qitsualik, former chair of the Gjoa Haven Hunters’ & Trappers’ Organization, knows where to catch char, which he shares with his large extended family. But as a warming climate opens up the waters of the Northwest Passage, raising the prospect of more commercial fishing, Qitsualik is readily participating in a research project to create a genetic profile of char and species such as Arctic cod and Northern shrimp to ensure their harvest remains sustainable for generations to come.
“We’re just trying to help make healthy food accessible to more people,” says Qitsualik, explaining that char caught near Gjoa Haven could be sent to a processing plant in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, which would provide some income for locals. “In the spring and summer, practically everybody here fishes.”
Dr. Virginia Walker, a molecular geneticist at Queen’s University and one of the leaders of the Towards a Sustainable Fishery for Nunavummiut project, says this research would not be possible without combining traditional Inuit and scientific knowledge. She doesn’t know how many distinct genotypes of char and other fish species live in a study area the size of Great Britain, but elders will recommend where to do fieldwork based on their familiarity with fish habitats. Char will be caught and dissected on the land, thanks to a snowmobile-pulled mobile lab, or frozen and sent to southern universities for DNA sequencing.
“Genetic analysis will allow us to identify different populations of char and help us understand their demographics and migration patterns,” says Dr. Walker. “You need to be very precise when you come up with a fisheries management plan.”
The project could also help Canada stake a stronger claim to the contested waters of the Northwest Passage. Ultimately, however, it’s about food security. “And it’s not really our project,” says Dr. Walker. “It belongs to the people of Nunavut. We’re just helping with the science.”