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Fish Species of the Gwich’in Settlement Area

Fish are very important to the Gwich’in. Fish are used for food (cooked and dried), to bait their traps, and to feed their dogs. In the Gwich'in Settlement Area (the GSA), about eleven species of fish are caught frequently in nets and used. The most important species are whitefish, coney, char, loche, and crookedback. There are another thirteen or so species of fish that are rarely caught in nets.

Whitefish (Coregonidae)

Crookedback - Dalts’an
Lake Whitefish (Coregonus clupeaformis)
Gwich'in pronunciation s
Lake Whitefish (Coregonus clupeaformis)
Lake Whitefish (Coregonus clupeaformis)

Where are they found in the GSA? They are found throughout the lakes and rivers of the GSA.
Appearance: They can be as long as 60 cm. They look very similar to broad whitefish (see below) but can be distinguished by their more angular head. Some individuals have a marked hump on their backs just posterior from the head (hence, the fish's other name "humpback whitefish").
Longevity: They are long lived; some individuals live as long as 23 years.
Spawning & migration: Some crookedback spend their summers in the ocean and return to freshwater to spawn in July and August. After spawning in late September / early October, they return to the ocean in late October and November. Other crookedback remain in freshwater their entire lives, spending the winters in deep lakes.
Food: Crookedback are bottom-feeders; they eat a wide variety of invertebrates (insects) and small fish.
Gwich’in Uses: Crookedback were the most important fish for feeding dogs but were also important for humans. It is most often dried to make dry fish, but can be roasted, fried, or boiled.
Status: Good. Abundant throughout the GSA.

Whitefish - Luk digaii, Luk zheii
Broad Whitefish (Coregonus nasus)
Gwich'in pronunciation (łuk digaii) s
 
Gwich'in pronunciation (łuk zheii) s
Broad Whitefish (Coregonus nasus)
Broad Whitefish (Coregonus nasus)

Where are they found in the GSA? Broad whitefish are also found throughout the lakes and rivers of the GSA.
Appearance: They can reach up to 90 cm in length. Broad whitefish have a silvery colour and look similar to crookedback. However, they have smaller heads and much blunter noses in comparison with crookedback.
Longevity: They are long lived, some as long as 24 years.
Spawning & migration: As broad whitefish migrate upstream to spawn in August, they are taken by the thousands in nets in the Mackenzie, Peel, and Arctic Red rivers. They spawn in mid to late October. In the fall, when whitefish begin their migration back to the coast, nets are set under the ice. Some populations of whitefish remain in freshwater all year round, while others migrate to and from the ocean.
Food: As it is suggested by its blunt snout, it is a bottom feeder, eating mollusks and aquatic insect larvae.
Gwich’in Uses: Broad whitefish remain one of the most important foods for Gwich’in. Broad whitefish are used for food, to bait traps and feed dogs.Most often dryfish is made: filets are hung outside in the shade for one day and then smoked lightly for several days.
Status: Good. Abundant throughout the GSA.

Coney - Shruh
Inconnu (Stenodus leucichthyes)
Gwich'in pronunciation s
Inconnu (Stenodus leucichthyes)
Inconnu (Stenodus leucichthyes)

Where are they found in the GSA? Coney are found throughout the Mackenzie River and its tributaries.
Appearance: They have large silver scales with dark green or pale brown backs. When they head to the ocean in the fall their scales become darker and thicker. Coney are somewhat similar to broad whitefish, but are generally bigger (they can be as long as 120 cm); they can weigh up to 40 pounds (18 kg).
Longevity: Coney can live as long as 35 years.
Spawning & migration: Coney in the GSA are either anadromous (migrate to and from the ocean) or riverine (complete their lifecycle in rivers). Anadromous coney migrate up the rivers from the ocean to spawn in the early fall (late September) and return to the ocean in late October. The main harvest periods for the Gwich’in are during these upstream (July - August) and downstream (late October, post-spawning) migrations. One coney tagged in British Columbia’s Liard River, was recaptured in the Beaufort Sea, indicating that some individuals migrate over 1800 km to their spawning grounds*. Other coney populations are lacustrine, spending their lives in lakes. Once mature, coney spawn every two to four years.
Food: Coney are voracious predators, feeding primarily on other fish like stickleback, whitefish, and ciscoes.
Gwich’in Uses: The Gwich’in use coney for food (dry fish) and to feed their dogs. Long ago when people were sick they asked for Shruh cooked from a fire. This helped them to regain their appetite.
Status: Good. A management plan is in place for Mackenzie River inconnu.

 

Herring - Treeluk
Arctic Cisco (Coregonus autumnailis)
Gwich'in pronunciation s
Arctic Cisco (Coregonus autumnailis)  

Where are they found in the GSA? They are found throughout the GSA.
Appearance:Herring are smaller than many of the other harvested fish (to 50 cm in length).
Longevity: Herring live as long as 19 years.
Spawning & migration: Herring spend most of their time in the oceans but go upriver to spawn in the summer (up the Peel, Arctic Red, and Mackenzie Rivers). Herring begin their migration in the summer (July – August), spawn in October and return to shortly thereafter.
Gwich’in Uses: It is a good, rich food and could be caught in large numbers. Herring is one of the most numerically abundant fish in the GSA. Fishermen report having caught over 1000 herring per day during the migration. This is in part due to the fact that herring travel in large groups. Usually, a smaller mesh net was used to catch herring. In the past, herring were used as dog food. Treeluk is also eaten by humans: dried, fried or boiled. Gwich’in cooked herring guts to make oil, which used for the treatment of burns, among other things.
Status: Few herring are caught today and many fishermen report a decrease in abundance.

 

Big Eye Herring - Treeluk
Least cisco (Coregonus sardinella)
Gwich'in pronunciation s
Least cisco (Coregonus sardinella)  

Where are they found in the GSA? This species can be found throughout the Mackenzie River.
Appearance: Very similar to the arctic cisco, the least cisco is smaller (length to 40 cm) and has a proportionately larger eye. Its body is more elongate than that of the arctic cisco.
Longevity: Herring live as long as 15 years.
Spawning & migration:Least cisco migrate in large numbers and are fished during this time. Because they are smaller than most other harvested fish, fishermen use smaller sized mesh. They migrate upriver in the summer and early fall, spawn in October and return in November.
Food: They feed primarily on amphipods but they also eat mosquitoes, black flies or sand flies.
Gwich’in Uses: The least cisco has the same use as the arctic cisco. In the past, herring were used as dog food. It is a good, rich food and could be caught in large numbers. Treeluk is also eaten by humans: dried, fried or boiled. Gwich’in cooked herring guts to make oil, which used for the treatment of burns, among other things.
Status: Few herring are caught today and many fishermen report a decrease in abundance.

Graylings (Thymallidae)

Bluefish - Sriijaa
Arctic Grayling (Thymallus arcticus)
Gwich'in pronunciation s
Arctic Grayling (Thymallus arcticus)
Arctic Grayling (Thymallus arcticus)

Where are they found in the GSA? They are found throughout the GSA in clear water.
Appearance: Grayling are trout like fishes with small toothed jaws, large scales and a large colourful (flag-like) dorsal fin (up to 70 cm in length). Its scientific name (Thymallus) derives from its supposed odour of wild thyme. Grayling have blue or purple backs, hence the common name, bluefish. Grayling are often seen jumping out of the water.
Longevity: In the NWT, they live for approximately 9 years (less in most other places).
Spawning & migration:Grayling remain in fresh water year round. They spawn in smaller streams about the time when the ice starts to break (usually between April and June).
Food: They are opportunistic feeders, but their most important summer food is terrestrial insects (which often makes up half of their diet).
Gwich’in Uses: Grayling are most commonly used for dog food.
Status: Little is known about the status of this species in the GSA.

Trouts, Chars, And Salmons (Salmonidae)

Char - Dhik’ii
Dolly Varden (Salvelinus malma)
Gwich'in pronunciation s
Dolly Varden (Salvelinus malma)
Dolly Varden (Salvelinus malma)

Where are they found in the GSA? They are found throughout the lakes and rivers of the GSA.
Appearance: Dolly Varden can measure to 70 cm. They are bluish-grey and silver-grey on the stomach. They also have small, freckled pink spots on their sides. Males are darker than females and they have a hook on their upper jaw. The name Dolly Varden has an interesting origin. McPhail and Lindsey explain: “the name Dolly Varden derives from a young lady of that name in Charles Dickens’ novel “Barnaby Rudge,” who favoured bright dresses. A gay polka-dotted material named after her was in vogue in the American west, and settlers transferred the name to the fashionably attired S. malma.” Like all species of the genus Salvelinus, Dolly Varden have a leading white edge on the lower fins.
Longevity: Char live as long as 13 years.
Spawning & migration: In the summer, char live in the ocean. In the fall they migrate to their freshwater spawning grounds. During the migration, char are harvested by residents of Ft. McPherson and Aklavik. After spawning, Dolly Varden spend the winter in freshwater near the spawning sites. These overwintering spots are special deep pools that don’t freeze to the bottom during the cold winters. Many Dolly Varden populations are much smaller today than in the past and actions are being taken to preserve them.
Food: Dolly Varden are carnivorous, feeding mainly on other fishes, insect larvae and gastropods (mostly snails).
Gwich’in Uses: Gwich’in use this fish mostly for food. Dolly Varden is too fat to dry well and must be eaten quickly or frozen. Long ago they used the fish oil as ear drops for hearing problems or a sore ear.
Status: Many of the char populations have been over-fished in the past and are much smaller as a result. There is a management plan in place for Rat River Dolly Varden and the stock is being closely monitored.

 

Lake Trout - Vit
Lake Trout (Salvelinus namaycush)
Gwich'in pronunciation s
Lake Trout (Salvelinus namaycush)
Lake Trout (Salvelinus namaycush)

Where are they found in the GSA? Lake trout live in lakes around the GSA all year, sometimes moving into creeks in the spring when the water is high.
Appearance: Lake trout vary in colour and have little red spots all over their bodies. They can grow very large (to over 100 cm) but are usually much smaller.
Longevity: They live to be as old as 25.
Spawning & migration: They do not migrate out of lake and usually spawn on gravel substrate near the lake shore.
Food: They are voracious predators, feeding on other fishes, insects, and bottom organisms.
Gwich’in Uses: Trout is considered a delicacy for the Gwich’in. Trout can be used to make dryfish but it is usually boiled, fried, or smoked. The meat varies in color from orange to creamy and is firm.
Status: Little is known about the status of this species in the GSA.

Dog Salmon - Shii
Chum Salmon (Oncorhyncus keta)
Gwich'in pronunciation s
Chum Salmon (Oncorhyncus keta)  

Where are they found in the GSA? Chum salmon spend little time in freshwater. They are found in the Mackenzie River and its tributaries. Historically, most salmon populations in the area were too small to be of much importance, but more and more salmon are now being caught.
Appearance: When spawning, chum salmon are dark above and have reddish sides. Males have hooked jaws when in spawning condition. Chum salmon can be 80 cm or more in length. Longevity: Most populations return to spawn between ages 3 and 6.
Spawning & migration: Chum return to freshwater to spawn in the early fall.
Food: When at sea, they feed on shrimp and other fish as they grow larger.
Gwich’in Uses: Because they are caught in such low numbers, salmon are not use by the Gwich’in.
Status: The increase in abundance of salmon in the Mackenzie may be a sign of a changing environment. DFO (Inuvik) is studying the increase in salmon.

Cods (Gadidae)

Loche - Chehluh
Burbot (Lota lota)
Gwich'in pronunciation s
Burbot (Lota lota)
Burbot (Lota lota)

Where are they found in the GSA? They are found throughout the lakes and rivers of the GSA.
Appearance: The only species of freshwater cod, loche may reach 120 cm in length, and weigh up to 30 pounds. Loche have slimey scaleless skin. They are dark-green with brown and black spots on the back. Their bellies are an off-white colour. Loche have large froglike heads.
Longevity: Loche can live up to 13 years.
Spawning & migration: Loche have a unique reproductive story: when all the other fish in the rivers are returning to the oceans after spawning, loche prepares for spawning. They spawn midwinter, under the ice. McPhail and Lindsay describe the spawning:

“Breeding occurs at night… when a number of males and females come together and form a globular mass of squirming bodies. Milt and tiny nonadhesive eggs are shed together.”

Loche are caught in the fall (October and November) once the ice is thick enough for travel. A hole is cut in the ice and a baited hook is used. Fishing is done at night (the best during a full moon) when loche are active. “Jiggling” is accomplished by placing the hook near the bottom and moving it up and down with quick jerks of the rod. A good night of jiggling can bring in more than 60 fish.
Food: Loche are voracious carnivores, feeding primarily on fish.
Gwich’in Uses: Loche is good food for people and their dogs. The liver, in particular, is highly prized.
Status: Little is known about this species in general and little is known about its status in the GSA.

Pikes (Esocidae)

Jackfish - Eltin
Northern Pike (Esox lucius)
Gwich'in pronunciation s
Northern Pike (Esox lucius)
Northern Pike (Esox lucius)

Where are they found in the GSA? Jackfish live in rivers, lakes, and creeks all over the GSA.
Appearance: Known as the “freshwater wolf”, the jackfish is large fish (to 120 cm ) and a voracious predator. The snout is long and flat and their teeth are very sharp. They are very aggressive and are often full of scars from fighting with other fish. The back is dark green with irregular yellowish spots and belly is white. Jackfish are a very bony fish with bright white flesh.
Longevity: They can live as long as 24-26 years in the arctic (10-12 years in the south).
Spawning & migration: Jackfish spawn in the spring, and they lay their eggs at the bottom of small creeks or shallow lakes. Elders say Jackfish don’t spawn until they are about three years old.
Food: They are sit-and-wait predators and feed mostly on other fish (including other jackfish).
Gwich’in uses: Eltin make good food, though not as many people eat it today as in the past.
Status: Little is known about the status of the species in the GSA.

Perches (Percidae)
Walleye
Walleye (Stizodeum vitreum)

Walleye (Stizodeum vitreum)

Where are they found in the GSA? They are found in the freshwater areas in the GSA.
Appearance: Perches have a spiny first dorsal fin and a second soft dorsal fin. They can be up to 80 cm long. Walleye have excellent meat; firm, flaky, white, dry, and relatively bone-free. Walleye are dark green or brown with yellow specks and the belly is white.
Longevity: They can live to be at least 15 years old.
Spawning & migration: They move during the spring spawning run to shallow shoals or to tributary rivers. They also move daily in response to light intensity, temperature and/or food availability.
Food: Walleye are largely piscivorous (fish eating).
Gwich’in Uses: Not used on a regular basis.
Status: Little is known about the status of this species in the GSA. They are caught occasionally in nets.

Suckers (Catastomidae)
Sucker
Longnose Sucker (Catastomus catastomus)

Longnose Sucker (Catastomus catastomus)

Where are they found in the GSA? They are found throughout the lakes and rivers of the GSA.
Appearance: A very long bottom-oriented snout distinguishes this fish from all others.
Longevity: They live as long as 14 years.
Spawning & migration: Spawning usually occurs in inlet streams, but it can also take place in outlets or shallows of lakes. Suckers migrate into these areas shortly after the ice cover melts to breed.
Food: Suckers feed on insect larvae and amphipods.
Gwich’in Uses: Not used on a regular basis.
Status: Little is known about the status of this species in the GSA. They are caught occasionally in nets.

Stickleback (Gasterosteidae)
Stickleback
Nine-spine stickleback (Pungitius pungitius)

Nine-spine stickleback (Pungitius pungitius)

Where are they found in the GSA? Stickleback can be found throughout the lakes and rivers of the GSA.
Appearance: A small (to 10 cm), scaleless fish.
Longevity: They live for about 3 years.
Spawning & migration: Stickleback spawn in fresh water during the summer. They have an unusual and interesting mating behaviour: the male stickleback builds a nest (using plant material and a sticky secretion) and through elaborate displays convinces a female to lay her eggs inside the nest. The male then enters the nest and fertilizes the eggs. The male stays and protects the nest (they are very territorial), providing all the parental care.
Food: Stickleback eat mostly insect larvae and small crustaceans.
Gwich’in Uses: Not used on a regular basis.
Status: Little is known about the status of this species in the GSA.

Minnows (Cyprinidae)
Chub
Flathead Chub (Platygobio gracilis)

Where are they found in the GSA? Chub can be found throughout the Mackenzie River system. They are often found in muddy rivers.
Appearance: True to its name, this chub has a wide flat head. It is quite adapted to life in muddy waters: it has small eyes and a barbel (elongated sensory projection) at the angle of the mouth. The flathead chub is a smallish fish (to 30 cm).
Longevity: They live for several years.
Spawning & migration: Not a great deal is known about spawning and migration patterns, though they probably spawn in July.
Food: Flathead chub are omnivores. They will eat insect larvae, berries, seeds, and other fish.
Gwich’in Uses: Not used on a regular basis.
Status: Little is known about the status of this species in the GSA.

Other Species
Several other species of fish are caught occasionally in the GSA. They include:

  • Boreal smelt (Osmerus eperianus)
  • Brook stickleback (Culea inconstans)
  • Emerald shiner (Notropis atheroides)
  • Goldeye (Hiodon alosoides)
  • Lake chub (Couesius plumbeus)
  • Lake cisco / lake herring (Coregonus artedii)
  • Longnose dace (Rhyninhthys cataractae)
  • Mountain whitefish (Prosopium williamsoni)
  • Northern redbelly dace (Phoxinus eos)
  • Pond smelt (Hypomesus olidus)
  • Round whitefish (Prosopium cylindraceum)
  • Slimy sculpin (Cottus cognatus)
  • Spoonhead sculpin (Cottus ricei)
  • Spottail shiner (Notropis hudsonius)
  • Trout perch (Percopsis omiscomaycus)
  • White sucker (Coregonus commersoni)

References and Further Reading
A review of the fisheries of the Mackenzie Delta and nearshore Beaufort Sea. 1981. L.D. Corkum and P.J. McCart. Canadian Manuscript Report of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 1613. pdf

A review of the status and harvests of fish stocks in the Gwich'in Settlement Area. 1996. D.B. Stewart. Canadian Manuscript Report of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 2336. pdf

Fish and fisheries of the Mackenzie system. 1986. P.J. McCart in B.R. Davies and K.F. Walker, eds. The eclogy of river systems. Dr. W. Junk Publishers, Dordrecht.

Freshwater fishes of Northwestern Canada and Alaska. 1970. J.D. McPhail and C.C. Lindsay. Bulletin 173, Freshwater Research Board of Canada.

Freshwater fishes of Canada. 1973. W.B. Scott and E.J. Crossman. Republished in 1998 by Galt House Publications.

Gwich’in words about the land. 1997. Gwich'in Renewable Resources Board.

More Gwich’in words about the land. 2001. Gwich'in Renewable Resources Board.

Monitoring spawning populations of migratory inconnu and Coregonids in the Peel River, NWT: the Peel River Fish Study. 2004. DRAFT. M. VanGerwen-Toyne and J. Walker-Larsen.

*Long-distance migrations by inconnu (Stenodus leucichthys) in the Mackenzie River system. S.A. Stephenson, J.A. Burrows, and J.A. Babaluk. 2005. Arctic 58: 21-25.

Image Credits
The line drawings of lake whitefish, broad whitefish, arctic grayling, Dolly Varden, lake trout, burbot, and northern pike are from the Yukon Fishing website. Photographs of lake whitefish, broad whitefish, inconnu, lake trout, arctic grayling, burbot, northern pike, walleye, and longnose sucker belong to the Gwich'in Renewable Resources Board. The drawing of the ninespine stickleback is from the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. The drawings of chum salmon are from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans website.

 
 

 

 
Gwich'in Renewable Resources Board