Fish are an important resource and constitute a large part of the Gwich’in subsistence economy. Today, the most important fish are whitefish, coney, and loche. Though taken in smaller numbers, char and trout are highly prized. In the past, herring and crookedback were caught for human consumption and dog feed.

The GRRB conducts fisheries research independently and in collaboration with other agencies. Through the Wildlife Studies Fund, the GRRB supports fisheries research by other agencies (cash and in-kind support). To ensure that research questions address local concerns, research conducted by or supported by the GRRB must be supported by the communities. The GRRB also assists the RRCs in conducting their own fisheries research projects. For all GRRB research projects, community members are hired as field assistants.


Rat River Charr (Dolly Varden) (1995 – present)

Dolly Varden Charr caught in the Rat River are a major food source for Aklavik and Fort McPherson families. Community concerns that the stock was being over-fished led to the development of the Rat River Charr Fishing Plan in 1997 and a harvest-based monitoring program in 1995. Gwich’in fishermen are hired as monitors to collect biological data on returning spawning char fish. Additionally, surveys and tagging of char at their spawning and over-wintering sites was done in 1995, 1997, and 2001. Tag returns were used to estimate the size of stock (mark-recapture) and to calculate age-specific growth rates of recaptured fish. Finally, char were radio-tagged and tracked in late fall to decide time of arrival for silvers to their spawning areas.

Studies of the Travaillant Lake System (2002 – 2007)

Identified as an important cultural and biological resource, the Travaillant Lake basin also falls in the path of the proposed Mackenzie Gas Pipeline. In anticipation of development in the area, a series of studies were conducted.

First, studies on fish movement and habitat use were conducted. Local knowledge of fish and fish habitat was gathered in interviews with elders from Tsiighetchic. This study provided information about fish distribution, movement, and habitat use. In 2003, a tagging study was begun. Over 300 lake and broad whitefish were tagged using T-Bar Anchor (floy) tags and released back into the lake. The study was conducted to provide insight on the movements and migrations of whitefish. A poor rate of recapture led to a different method: in 2004, radio transmitters were surgically implanted into mature fish. These fish were then tracked over nearly two years. Their movements allowed the identification of critical habitats for feeding, spawning, and over-wintering. All studies point to the conclusion that Travaillant Lake contains a population of broad whitefish that never leave the lake system (unlike other populations of broad whitefish that return to the ocean after spawning).

Second, netting studies (begun in 2003) collect a wealth of information on the presence of fish species and their biological characteristics. In the summer, netting takes place in the lake, while in the fall netting takes place in the rivers. The fall netting captures broad whitefish and lake whitefish as they move in to the rivers to spawn.

Rat River Char Monitoring (1995 – present)

A harvest-based monitoring program was initiated in 1995 and continues annually. Gwich’in fishermen are hired as monitors (locations of monitoring: Aklavik, Husky Channel, big Eddy, mouth of Rat River, and Destruction City) to collect biological data on fish caught by themselves and other participants throughout the late summer (fish migrating upstream are targeted). This monitoring program provides information on age, sex, maturity, body condition, and abundance. The monitoring program is an important component of the Rat River Char Fishing Plan and is central to obtaining population estimates every three years. GRRB contributes funding annually to this DFO-led project.

Rat River Traditional Knowledge Study (2007)

The Rat River Char Working Group (Aklavik HTC and RRC, Fort McPherson RRC, GRRB, FJMC, DFO) works towards managing char (Dolly Varden, Salvelinus malma) in the Rat River. For some time now, the Group char has been looking to document traditional ecological knowledge of char to better incorporate this knowledge into management. This study aims to meet this requirement.

Investigation into the Quality of Burbot (Loche) Livers (2007 – 2018)

Burbot (Lota lota), locally known as loche, were collected from traditional fishing locations near Inuvik, Aklavik, Tsiigehtchic and Fort McPherson in the Gwich’in Settlement Area (GSA), Northwest Territories. Loche are a very important subsistence fish for the Gwich’in people – especially their livers, which are considered a delicacy to most elders. Community concerns about the quality of loche livers, in association with their appearance, has been lingering in the GSA for more than a decade. In 2007, this study compared the contamination content (organochlorines and metals) in livers with appearance, which was categorized by local Gwich’in Fish Monitors. Stable isotopes, age, length, weight and sex were also investigated. In 2008, livers and other biological samples were again collected. Analyses that included parasite pathology, genetics and stomach contents was conducted in 2009.

The 2014 study found considerable variability in ecological and morphological traits of burbot fishes in the region, suggesting that the different subspecies of burbot may exploit different niches. The GRRB were concerned with an increase in diseased fishes being caught in the area. Specifically, we wanted to identify if dispersal patterns might explain that worrying trend. The study found that different communities of the GSA probably have different subspecies of burbot, with the Eurasian subspecies being slightly different both genetically and phenotypically and restricted to the lower regions of the Mackenzie River Delta; thus they are probably not migrating to the higher reaches of the river.

2018 update – The GRRB teamed up with some colleagues to write up the work Amy Amos did back in 2007 and 2008 that shows our traditional methods can be used to predict changes in fish health. Check it out!

Cott, P. A. et. al. 2018. Can traditional methods of selecting food accurately assess fish health? Arctic Science 4: 205–222.

Recknagel, H., Amos, A. & Elmer, K.R. 2014. Morphological and ecological variation among populations and subspecies of Burbot (Lota lota) from the Mackenzie River Delta, Canada. CFN 128 (4).

Goater, C. Occurrence and pathology of liver worms in burbot from the McKenzie River Delta. Department of Biological Sciences, University of Lethbridge, Alberta.

Elmer, K.R., Recknagel, H., Thompson, A. & Meyer, A. 2011. Asymmetric admixture and morphological variability at a suture zone: parapatric burbot subspecies (Pisces) in the Mackenzie River basin, Canada. Hydrobiologia v. 678.

Rat River Char Population Estimates (1995, 1997, 2001, 2004, 2007)

This project involves floy tagging Rat River char at the fish hole so that next season, as they migrate back up to the spawning grounds, char can be counted and an estimate of the population can be completed. This estimate is repeated every few years to inform the Rat River Char Fishing Plan and harvest levels.

Investigation of Vittrekwa River Dolly Varden (1998, 1999, 2006, 2007)

Apart from the Rat River, the only other population of Dolly Varden char (Salvelinus malma) that is harvested in the GSA is the population that spawns in the Vittrekwa River. This research aims to investigate this little known population. Using traditional knowledge, the location of the spawning grounds was determined. We then equipped 10 char with radio transmitters and will be following their movements throughout the fall and winter of 2006. We also collected information on the biology of this population and genetic samples.

Population Structure of Fish Species in the Mackenzie River (2006 – 2007)

The goal of this study is to determine the number of stocks of loche (burbot, Lota lota, Chehluk), coney (inconnu, Stenodus leucicthys, Sruh), and crookedback (lake whitefish, Coregonus clupeaformis, Dalts’an). Fish fins were collected from fishermen throught the Gwich’in Settlement Area. For each species we will determine the population structure using genetics (microsatellites). This work is being done in collaboration with Paul Bentzen, Dalhousie University.

Arctic Red River Fish Study (2003 – 2006)

In 2003, the GRRB began a study of the fish resources of the Arctic Red River. The river has long provided food for families (and dogs) and a source of income. The whitefish species in the river also play an important role in the ecosystem food chain, as well, been identified as an important spawning, rearing and over wintering area. The study researched the impact, both culturally and economically, of accelerated oil and gas development in the Mackenzie Delta. The study was also carried out to mirror a similar study conducted on the Peel River 1998-2003 (see below). This research will begin again in 2006.

Peel River Fish Study (1998 – 2002)

Every year coney, whitefish, crooked back, and herring migrate from the Beaufort Sea to river spawning sites in the Mackenzie River drainage. In response to concerns that potential developments in the Peel will affect fish populations, the GRRB began the Peel River Fish Study in 1998 to determine the timing of migration and to collect baseline information about spawning populations of fish in the Peel River. Gwich’in fishermen with camps along the Peel River were hired each fall to catch fish and collect biological information. Data was collected for five years. This study was done in cooperation with the Tetlit RRC and Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Local knowledge of Broad Whitefish in the GSA (2001)

This project collected and summarized community concerns and knowledge about broad whitefish within the Gwich’in Settlement Area. This study was done to inform the development of Integrated Fisheries Management Plan for Broad Whitefish (Coregonus nasus) in the lower Mackenzie River. Integrated management plans use both scientific and traditional knowledge. No management plan is yet in place for broad whitefish.

Lower Mackenzie River Index Netting (1999 – 2000)

The GRRB funded a DFO led project to use index netting concurrently at many locations in the Mackenzie River drainage to investigate fish stocks. The study relied on community field workers using experimental gill nets (2″ – 5.5″) set each night for a week in July.

Sandy Lake Fish Study (1999)

The idea of establishing a fishing lodge on Sandy Lake prompted this study to assess the feasibility and sustainability of a lodge. Two field trips demonstrated that few, if any, trophy size lake fish inhabit the lake.

Database of Fish Research in the GSA (1999)

The GRRB produced a database of all the fisheries related research that took place in part or in its entirety in the Gwich’in Settlement Area. The database in searchable by fish species, location, type of data collected, and other parameters. It provides a comprehensive tool to access information of fisheries research in the GSA.

Campbell Creek/Lake Study (1998-1999)

Campbell Creek is an important recreational and subsistence fishing area. Recreational use was expected to increase with the development of the Gwich’in Territorial Park. This study aimed to collect information on fish populations in the lake. In particular, it aimed to document the biodiversity and movements of fish in the lake and creek.

Analysis of strontium levels of coney (inconnu) otoliths (1998)

The GRRB supported DFO research investigating migration patterns of inconnu (coney, or Stenodus leucichthys) in the Mackenzie River system. Coney were collected from Shingle Point, Tuktoyaktuk harbour, Campbell Lake, Aklavik, the Arctic Red River, the Liard River, and the Mackenzie River (near Fort Good Hope and near Norman Wells). The ear bones (otoliths) from these coney were analyzed for strontium levels to determine whether the fish are anadromous (migrate between freshwater and the ocean) or remain in freshwater exclusively.

Community concerns about coney (inconnu) in the GSA (1998)

The GRRB produced a database of all the fisheries related research that took place in part or in its entirety in the Gwich’in Settlement Area. The database in searchable by fish species, location, type of data collected, and other parameters. It provides a comprehensive tool to access information of fisheries research in the GSA.

Coney (inconnu) migration studies (1996-1998)

The GRRB supported DFO research investigating migration patterns of inconnu (coney, or Stenodus leucichthys) in the Mackenzie River system. 90 inconnu were floy-tagged and 34 inconnu were radio-tagged. This study shed light on the timing and routes of migration, the frequency of spawning, and the likely locations of spawning.