Arctic char is among the many other aquatic species fighting against the effects of climate change. Drastic changes impact their polar habitats, and many hazards could put this species at risk. The exposures and the impacts are severe, and this vulnerable species could be placed on the endangered list or, even worse, extinct. Throughout the past decade, increased temperatures, mainly due to greenhouse gases caused by human activities, directly threaten char populations in this area (Kelly et al., 2020). Temperature is the main factor in decreasing Arctic char populations in the northern hemisphere. With the rapidly increasing change, we must work together to slow the hazards, exposure, and impacts on the Arctic. Inaction will be devastating to the fish populations in this area and potentially irreversible if we see a 2ºC global temperature increase; this would eliminate many species and environments.
Some of the main threats targeting this region include:
- Increased ocean temperature
- Ocean acidification
- Melting of sea-ice
- Increase in parasites
- Shift in migration patterns
Impacts on Arctic Cultures
Different cultures in the Arctic are already feeling the effects of climate change. Although many countries are now starting char production, various Indigenous groups have slowed the hunt for Arctic char. Ocean temperature warming has had a catastrophic effect on fisheries and Arctic fishing practices; other species are declining in populations and migrating to colder water much earlier. This also affects Arctic communities' food market; Arctic char was ranked the best seafood choice by Seafood Watch Reports (Riaz, 2022). Due to climate change, Arctic char populations are rapidly decreasing in the North; some cultures have to stop the consumption of char, a delicacy in many areas.
Hazards, Vulnerabilities, and Exposure
Warming Ocean Temperatures
The Arctic has been warming three times faster than the global amount over the past 43 years; the temperatures continue increasing consistently due to dark waters and melting sea ice (Bamber, 2022). Temperatures are rising, changing migration, feeding habits, growth rates, and egg mortality. The water temperature has even increased the pathogenesis of Char; 25% of all freshwater char carry a parasite (Element, 2021).
To the left is a diagram of the average Arctic temperature vs. global temperature since 1900. The red line is the Arctic; after 2000, it rises above the grey line or global average. As of 2020, the Arctic has increased to an average temperature of 2°C, while the worldwide average is still at 0.9°C. Above the graph is a heat map of the Arctic; there are much higher temperatures toward the middle of the Arctic Circle.
The oceans have absorbed about 30% of the anthropogenic CO2 released into the atmosphere in the past 200 years. This leads to a chemical reaction forming an acidic sea layer (Munday, 2009). The CO2 released into the atmosphere on the surface reacts with warm water caused by melting sea ice and affects the pH balance over time. This reaction creates an acid layer called ocean acidification which is extremely harmful to marine life, especially Arctic char (NOAA,2023).
With an increase in greenhouse gases, ocean acidification will also increase, which could seriously affect char. Research shows this could affect the growth rate s of the fish and even kill them if the level of acidification continues to increase (Reist, 2006). Acidification can disorient, cause hyperactivity, impact their vision, and become attracted to rather than repelled by the smell of predators; these changes could destroy populations (Enserink, 2020).
Change in Migration Patterns
Changes in migration patterns and spawning time have significant ecological and management implications. Arctic char are anadromous fish 6-9 years old travel to the freshwater between August and October to spawn ("Arctic Char Species Profile, Alaska Department of Fish and Game," n.d.). During summer, char migrate to the cold oceans and then return to freshwater in the colder months. They are now going to Arctic waters earlier than ever and staying longer than usual (Smalås, 2019). Factors that are causing this change include:
- Their reproduction window has shifted due to the temperature rise
- Less food accessibility
- Rising sea levels
Timing is crucial to the survival of eggs and newly hatched fish; it determines their problems. Early arrival could cause mortality, and there may not be enough food; late arrival and they will have less time to grow and will be small compared to their siblings and predators (NOAA, 2015).
Susceptibility to Disease
Climate change is even affecting the immunity char have against diseases and parasites as it does to humans when you are in a new environment. Increase in water temperature has opened the door to freshwater parasites; 25% of freshwater char carried a parasite. The warm temperatures continue to increase the number of parasites and fish affected by them (Element, 2021). Diseases can spread to newly hatched fish and other fish in the same environment and cause death. Furunculosis is a severe bacterial disease in Arctic char that often leads to mortality; causes of this include:
- Poor water quality,
- High temperature and
- Low oxygen (Johnston, 2002)
Production of Arctic Char
In many northern countries, the farming of Arctic char has become very common, and it is a sustainable fish source. Based in Iceland, the Samherji Fish Farming company is the world's leading producer of Arctic char, producing roughly 8 million pounds per year, almost half of all farmed Arctic char produced worldwide (McDonagh, 2020). Char production increases population status, but releasing captive char into the wild can have vast ecological consequences (Sencer, 2017). this could be the way to save the char population, but if protective measures are not taken to release these farmed fish, it can do more harm than good. Farmed fish can expose wild populations to disease, alter choices in food consumption, and may not survive due to environmental changes (Science, 2023). Although there are hazards with this production practice, the benefits could be what saves Arctic char; it is also a primary food for many communities, as it is one of the healthiest choices of fish, farmed or captive ("Contaminants Fact Sheets - Health and Social Services," 2016).
Adaptation and Resilience
Shift to a New Species
Arctic cultures need to adapt to a new way of fishing and a different variety of food. This change needs to happen due to rising ocean temperatures and a massive decrease in wild Arctic char populations in the North. Char is an important cultural, economic, and food source within Arctic communities; to keep this population afloat, these communities in the Arctic will need to shift to another source of catch (Government of Canada, 2014). This is proving difficult for fishermen in this area because fish want to move to deeper, colder water further North. Salmon is an excellent choice of fish to replace char; Salmon is much more populated in this area and can still provide communities with great meals (Albert, 2023). Things we can do to help save the Arctic char population include:
- limit fishing on Arctic char
- stricter guidelines on fishing in these areas
- Diversify catches, switch to Salmon
- Salmon are not as rare and are more widespread
Maintain Local Knowledge
To keep the fishing tradition alive and keep the char population intact, elders in this area of the Arctic need to pass down their knowledge and skill to further generations. They also need to continue to give understanding to others even if char populations continue to decrease or they move deeper into colder water. Older generations need to be spreading the knowledge and awareness that climate change is not slowing down.
- maintain the skill linked with catching char
- Pass down the knowledge of fishing for char to younger generations
- Continue learning new ways to fish even if char move north or decline
- Educate others on the effects of climate change and the loss of marine species if ocean temperatures get too warm
Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions
With char populations moving north to deeper, colder water and much of the population depleting, it is hard to find an adaptation plan to help the Arctic char maintain a healthy population in this area. This species can only adapt so much to this drastic change due to warming ocean temperatures (Hein, 2012). Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is the main factor that will help prevent the loss of this vital species. If we can reduce emissions, char could remain in the waters of the Arctic. However, many think that the water temperatures have already reached a temperature threshold, meaning that we may have already reached the point of no return (Bengwayan, 2020).
About the Author
Ben Graham graduated in 2025 and is an Environmental Studies major and Outdoor Studies minor at St. Lawrence University. He is from Northern Maine and was interested in researching the impact of climate change on Arctic char due to his love for fly fishing and wildlife. Ben created this webpage for Dr. Jon Rosales' "Adapting to Climate Change" course during the Spring 2023 semester at St. Lawrence.
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