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Open access

Nunavik anadromous Arctic char life histories, behaviour, and habitat use informed by both Inuit knowledge and western science: a year in Ungava Bay

Publication: Arctic Science
21 February 2023


This study is a comprehensive documentation of anadromous Arctic char (Salvelinus alpinus) life history in Ungava Bay, Nunavik, Canada, through Inuit knowledge. Inuit experts shared their knowledge during semidirected interviews and other occasions such as informal discussions and fieldwork. A contextualized synthesis of published western scientific literature is provided for the various life stages of Arctic char. The close year-round relationship Inuit have with Arctic char allows to set evidence of poorly described life-history strategies in western literature and to reveal behaviours that, to the best of the authors’ knowledge, have not been documented so far. The connections and paralleling of Inuit knowledge and published studies about Arctic char informs western science with a more holistic understanding of Arctic char ecology. By bringing Inuit knowledge of Arctic char to the foreground, the present study highlights relevant research avenues for co-developed projects on Arctic char ecology.

1. Contribution recognition

The present study was informed by knowledge holders from Kangiqsualujjuaq, Tasiujaq, and Kangirsuk communities, Nunavik, QC, Canada. We gratefully acknowledge their contribution, teachings, time, and shared stories during the interviews and fieldwork. They are, for the interviews, in Kangiqsualujjuaq: Tommy Unatweenuk, Tivi Etok, Bobby Baron (D.), Kenny Angnatuk, and Susie Morgan; in Tasiujaq: Moses Munick, Tommy Cain Sr. (D.), and Willie Cain Jr.; and in Kangirsuk: Elijah Grey, Jeeka Kudluk, and Mary Airo. Interviews in Kangiqsualujjuaq were arranged and interpreted by Thomas Edward Annanack. Interpreters were Susie Kudluk in Kangirsuk and Mary Annanack in Tasiujaq. For knowledge and stories shared in situ they are, in Kangiqsualujjuaq: Elijah Snowball, and in Kangirsuk: Zebedee Annahatak and Mark Manic Carrier. The manuscript was provided to the municipal authorities and Local Nunavimmi Umajulivijiit Katujaqatigininga (LNUK, local hunters and fishers association) of the three communities for approval and validation, before being submitted.

2. Authors' positionality

VD is a French immigrant graduate student, living in Quebec City, Canada. She has previously worked as a scientist and has been trained by an education system where Cartesian science was presented as the only valid scientific point of view. She has a long-time interest in Inuit culture. Since her enrolment in her Ph.D. program, she has followed numerous courses and training on Indigenous knowledge and has learnt to acknowledge her own biases and those of western science towards Inuit knowledge. Time and regular communications were used to build trust and reciprocity with the involved communities. She has experienced Inuit lifestyle and ways of knowing and living in their environment. For the present study, she planned the interview guide, conducted the interviews, wrote, and edited the final documentation of interviews including maps, and conducted the validation process. PM is Inuk, born in Kuujjuaq and raised in Kangiqsuallujuaq and Kuujjuaq. He has worked at the Nunavik Research Center on various projects including Arctic char for 39 years, always integrating Inuit knowledge into his research. PM was involved in the project to provide an overview on the information gathered on Arctic char, given his significant experience doing research on this species, and to make sure the paper was respectful of Inuit knowledge. C-AG is a settler inhabiting the seventh district of the unceded lands of the Mi'gmaq nation. Of western education with a Ph.D. in water science, she is a biologist with 16 years of experience in the aquatic ecology of rivers, lakes, and migratory fishes. Since 2014, she has been working for the Gespe'gewaq Mi'gmaq Resource Council where each project carried out is based on the concept of Two-Eyed Seeing, whether for applied research projects, environmental monitoring, or habitat restoration. By unlearning and building reciprocity, she is honored to participate in the co-production of research with Indigenous communities. ASt-H and NB are VD’s supervisor and co-supervisor, trained and practitioners in environment and fish ecology on a western science framework but learning the difference and importance of Indigenous knowledge. ASt-H has worked in collaboration with First Nations communities (Mi'gmaq and Innu) on different research projects in which local and traditional knowledge was important to define sampling strategies. Previously, they implemented fuzzy logic models that allow for the inclusion of Inuit knowledge in habitat studies. They were the initiators of this project and provided western science insight for data analyses.

3. Introduction

Arctic char (Salvelinus alpinus) is an important food source for Inuit communities throughout the Canadian Arctic (Watts et al. 2017; Tremblay et al. 2020). In Nunavik, anadromous Arctic char is by far the most commonly consumed fish species (Boivin 1994; Blanchet and Rochette 2004; Watts et al. 2017). Year-round Arctic char fishing is part of the Inuit way of life since time immemorial. The continuum of extensive observations of the environment and interconnectedness integrated over time results in a deep comprehensive knowledge of fish behaviours and migration timing (Berkes 2018).
Arctic char biology and ecology was reviewed by Johnson (1980a) and Klemetsen et al. (2003) further described life histories and phenotypes. These detailed reviews dealt with the different morphs of Arctic char across its entire geographical distribution, with anadromous Arctic char being a small part of the general picture. A short updated synthesis of Arctic char life histories for the Canadian Arctic highlighted the importance of Arctic char fisheries for northern populations (Reist et al. 2018). However, Inuit knowledge was not included in any of these reviews, which were essentially informed exclusively by western studies on specific characteristics of this species life cycle. The importance of taking into account Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) in ecological studies is crucial, especially when the harvesters are impacted by management decisions (Huntington 2000). The ecology of several species has been studied through an Inuit knowledge lens and that allowed to further detail local ecology and bring complementary aspects on existing western knowledge, for example, for polar bears (Laforest et al. 2018), Arctic terns (Henri et al. 2020), caribou (Gagnon et al. 2020), beluga (Ostertag et al. 2018; Breton-Honeyman et al. 2021), and Pacific salmon (Chila et al. 2021). For Arctic char, knowledge from Inuit fishers has been used to inform fisheries management (Berkes et al. 2005; Janjua et al. 2016; Roux et al. 2019) or to point out environmental change and char condition (Knopp et al. 2012; Falardeau et al. 2022). However, Inuit general knowledge on this species life histories has not yet been documented.
The aim of the present study is to document Inuit knowledge of the anadromous form of Arctic char in Ungava Bay during its entire life cycle and to weave published literature with this knowledge. The work was inspired by the concept of “Two-eyed seeing” approach (Bartlett et al. 2012; Reid et al. 2021). The approach can be defined as “learning to see from one eye with the strengths of Indigenous knowledges and ways of knowing, and from the other eye with the strengths of Western knowledges and ways of knowing, and to using both these eyes together, for the benefit of all” (Bartlett et al. 2012). Our work was conducted so that both Inuit and scientific complementary perspectives interact without compromising each other and allow for a more comprehensive and holistic picture of overall anadromous Arctic char life histories, with respect for each knowledge system.
Inuit knowledge is presented under different themes. In the first four sections, the seasons used are divided according to adult fish behaviour, linked to northern climate, as used by Inuit of Nunavik, instead of the usual western season dates (Fig. 1). The following sections are related to juvenile rearing, interactions with other fish species, predators and observed changes to the char environment. For each theme, Inuit knowledge is presented in the foreground and the scientific literature perspective is only presented in the “Discussion and links between Inuit knowledge and western scientific literature” section.
Fig. 1.
Fig. 1. Inuit seasons described in relation with rhythmic life of Arctic char in Nunavik (inside colored wheel); conventional western seasons (outside colored wheel).

4. Methods

4.1. Study background and design

The project followed local consultations led by Makivik Corporation on the state of Arctic char populations of Nunavik in a changing climate (Neelin 2021). Barriers to char migration due to various factors, especially to access their spawning areas, were mentioned as concerning in several communities. To have a better understanding of the local habitats used by char in freshwater and the potential impacts of climate change on these habitats, they had to be characterized first since they were poorly documented in the Nunavik region. This project was initiated by co-authors ASt-H, NB, and VD in collaboration with Makivik and Québec wildlife ministry (Ministère des Forêts, de la Faune et des Parcs du Québec, MFFP). An interview framework was initially developed by VD, to address local habitat use and migration patterns. The study was conceived as a participatory mixed-method study, including participatory mapping (Armitage and Kilburn 2015; Creswell and Creswell 2018). Although, guided with fixed topics, the interview method allowed the participants to follow their ideas and associations. The different discussed topics were classified manually by main concordant themes which were linked to the seasons and fishing activities during the year. This highlighted the importance of seasonality and the different life histories through the lens of habitat use during the whole lifecycle, which is further described below under the form of a qualitative study. In addition, a quantitative analysis of the information gathered from the same interviews was being completed in parallel with the aim to specifically build predictive models of the spawning habitats. This quantitative component is not part of the current paper and will be the subject of a forthcoming manuscript (Dubos et al. 2023). Although the present study was initially built as a participatory project, in continuity to its results and for meaningful engagement and reciprocity as recommended in Wilson et al. (2020), we co-developed with the community of Kangirsuk a community-led project of Arctic char population assessment. This latter project was planned to build engagement from Inuit and southern researchers and is conducted following the ScIQ principles, meaning using scientific methods and tools but guided by the Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (IQ) values and principles (Pedersen et al. 2020).

4.2. Interviews

Interviews were conducted during summer 2019 with elders and younger active hunters from three Nunavik villages located in the Ungava Bay: Kangiqsualujjuaq, Tasiujaq, and Kangirsuk (Fig. 2). The term “hunter” has a recognized social status among Inuit, and it is taken in its broader sense, which includes fish harvesting. A purposeful sampling (Coyne 1997) of the participants was completed by each LNUK among knowledge holders from the community. Only one participant was member of a LNUK board, in Tasiujaq. They were chosen based on their recognized extensive knowledge of Arctic char, their availability, and willingness to participate. The participants were considered as experts on this subject (Libakova and Sertakova 2015). A total of eleven participants were interviewed: two women and nine men. Nine of them were elders and two were middle-aged experienced hunters from Kangiqsualujjuaq and Tasiujaq. Most of the elders had experienced nomadic life before the settlement, and some of them were still active hunters (one in Kangirsuk and two in Kangiqsualujjuaq). As several participants explained, their knowledge (IQ) was acquired from their ancestors and by being on the land for fishing and other hunting activities with relatives. IQ has a larger meaning than the western use of the term “knowledge” and incorporates relationships laws, culture, attitude, and values (Nunavut Department of Education 2007). It should be considered as a way of being. The present study is based solely on the ecological knowledge embedded in IQ. Hence, the term “Inuit knowledge” used throughout the study can be considered with a similar sense to the term “Traditional Ecological Knowledge” (Usher 2000; Berkes 2017), although specific to Inuit culture and always evolving and adapting to a changing context. Despite the connotation of “traditional”, this knowledge can be contemporary (Tester and Irniq 2008; Tagalik 2012).
Fig. 2.
Fig. 2. Approximate location of the territories described for the purpose of this study around the villages of Kangiqsualujjuaq, Tasiujaq, and Kangirsuk (dashed lines). Several participants used and had knowledge on larger territories not illustrated on the map. By no means does this represent the extent of land use by Inuit nor does it encompass the entire distribution of Arctic char in Ungava Bay. Map sources: Esri, “Ocean Basemap”, GEBCO, NOAA, National Geographic, DeLorme, HERE,, and other contributors; and Esri, “Light Gray Canvas Map”, DeLorme, HERE, MapmyIndia. Coordinate system: WSG_1984, Projection: Mercator Auxiliary Sphere.
Individual interviews were conducted in Kangiqsualujjuaq (n = 5) and Tasiujaq (n = 3), whereas in Kangirsuk, a group interview was conducted at the request of the participants (n = 3). Semidirective interviews were completed to allow for a relatively free conversation flow, albeit structured around fixed topics and questions, following an interview guide (Supplementary data). The interviews also included some specific questions about Arctic char habitat preferences for river characteristics. In addition, participants mapped several sites used by Arctic char, especially for reproduction and overwintering on 1:50 000 scale maps. For each community, the territory identified covered several watercourses on portions of the territory traditionally used, and still today, for fishing (Fig. 2). It was noticed by co-author VD, who conducted the interviews, that all participants were comfortable with specifying when they were unsure or did not have knowledge of certain aspects or specific sites. Except for the answers to specific questions, the information transmitted was in the form of stories and observations made during activities throughout the territory. Most of the interviews were conducted with the assistance of Inuktitut–English interpreters. No interpreter was required for the two youngest participants who were interviewed in English. Some minor loss on descriptions or nuances of terms may have happened due to the translation of the descriptive nature of the Inuktitut language. In addition, we acknowledge that a certain amount of subjectivity in the interpretation of the information is present. A post hoc validation of the information collected during the interviews was done with each participant, except for three of them who were not available (one in Kangiqsualujjuaq and two in Tasiujaq). This validation process was conducted with interpreters translating the English synthesis of information back to Inuktitut. It allowed to minimize misunderstandings that could have arisen from the translation and from the nature of knowledge transmitted. For each community, a synthesis of the information collected during the interviews, including maps of known habitat use and other sites of interest, was produced (in Inuktitut and in English), and transmitted for validation or comments to the participants, to the LNUK and the municipal office of each community and to the Nunavik Research Center. These reports remain confidential as required by the partner communities, due to the sensitive nature of the maps showing habitats used by the fish. Furthermore, some informal discussions with guides during fieldwork and with Inuit collaborators allowed to verify and support information. Hence, all the information presented in the current study was validated by other community members. The study, including informed consent and interviews protocol, was verified and approved by the INRS Ethics Committee (CER-19-517), based on INRS ethics policy for research involving humans, following the Tri-Council policy statement—Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans. Participants gave informed consent before participating in the study by signing a consent form. All participants gave their consent to be voice-recorded and to be named. They could withdraw at any point or decline to respond to any question.

4.3. Presentation of the results

To minimize any potential bias related to non-Inuit interpretation, except for the inevitable choice of which information would be presented, the subsections entitled “Inuit knowledge” present only Inuit knowledge as it was transmitted during the interviews, unless explicitly stated otherwise. When community-specific knowledge was shared, the name of the community is mentioned. If the knowledge or observation(s) was shared among participants from different communities, then no specific community is identified. When an information was not common to the majority, the number of participants that gave this information is specified (e.g., n = 2). Nonetheless, the fact that the information was not mentioned by other participants did not mean that they disagree or that they did not have this specific knowledge. Indeed, each interview flow could lead to collecting information on different subjects or different stories. Citations between quotation marks from interviewees were attributed to their author. When the author of a citation was not a participant to the interviews, the mention “personal communication” was added to the author’s name. Inuktitut names for fish are given in some sections to identify specific forms of Arctic char, as they are considered by Inuit of Nunavik (Table 1). Indeed, they use different names for different morphotypes. Commonly, the term Arctic char is used to identify anadromous Arctic char, called Iqaluppik in Nunavik Inuktitut. Landlocked or lake-resident char are called Nutillik and are easily distinguishable from Iqaluppik. The Arctic char spawners are called Aupalujaak (or Aupalujaalik in Kangirsuk and Hudson Straight region), meaning red char.
Table 1.
Table 1. Inuktitut names of Arctic char with different life histories and reproductive strategies.

5. Results and discussions

5.1. Preamble—reflection on transmitted Inuit knowledge

Some questions of the interview framework were first formulated under the lens of western non-Inuit biological studies, which most often state hypotheses with the aim of answering one or many question(s) beginning with the word “why”. However, it appeared rapidly that this question style was not appropriate as participants generally did not search to explain or justify fish behaviours. For example, when a participant was asked if he thought there would be a reason for a specific habitat choice, he stated that he could not answer the question because the fish were not talking to him. Another participant asked about some specific variable that could impact habitat selection, answered that “It’s really up to the fish, (...). That’s the animal’s choice” (T. Etok, Kangiqsualujjuaq). The discomfort of participants questioned about animals intentions was also noted in Collings et al. (2018). The fish sentience, social intelligence, and sense of self are generally excluded from the western scientific studies consulted, although they impact the fish behaviour (Brown 2015; Sneddon and Brown 2020). Hence, questions regarding fish intentions about habitat selection were reformulated to be only descriptive and the flow of discussion gave more space to participants storytelling on fishing experience. In the present document, the authors attempted to respect the Inuit way of knowing about the environment and doing observations, for whom humans are strongly connected to all living things and an are integral part of the ecosystem (Nunavut Department of Education 2007).

5.2. Summer: marine environment and upstream migration

5.2.1. Marine environment

Inuit knowledge
During the summer, Arctic char are feeding in estuaries of the main rivers, along the shores. They are harvested either using fishing rods or gillnets (usual mesh size: 8.8–10.0 cm), installed in the tidal zone, a few meters below the surface (Fig. 3). Although the fish generally remain in coastal areas, some individuals can travel long distances. A participant from Kangiqsualujjuaq who had worked with Makivik researchers to tag fish in Sapukkait River, 70 km north of Kangiqsualujjuaq, told that one tagged individual was recaptured in Salluit, Nunavik, and another one in Siberia, Russia (B. Baron, Kangiqsualujjuaq). He also had knowledge about their displacement in the ocean and mentioned that when they are in the ocean and it is too cold west of Greenland and Hudson Straight, they are known to be found close to the coasts of Newfoundland. Another participant from Kangirsuk, who had also worked with researchers in the 1960s, told that a fish tagged in Kangirsuk during the summer was found in Iqaluit, Nunavut, during the fall of the same year (E. Grey, Kangiqsualujjuaq).
Fig. 3.
Fig. 3. Example of traditional summer fishing area in the Koroc River estuary, near Kangiqsualujjuaq. Arctic char are caught by rod and gillnet. The picture was taken from the shore at low tide, on 29 June 2019 (Credit: Véronique Dubos). Map sources: Esri, “Ocean Basemap”, GEBCO, NOAA, National Geographic, DeLorme, HERE,, and other contributors. Coordinate system: WSG_1984, Projection: Pseudo-Mercator.

5.2.2. Upstream migration

Timing and migration trigger (Inuit knowledge)
Some participants in Kangiqsualujjuaq (n = 2) and Tasiujaq (n = 1), mentioned that some fish start to migrate upstream in mid-July. In Kangirsuk, the migration starts later, i.e., in early or mid-August. The migration peak happens in late August in the three communities, but some fish can migrate upstream until late October (n = 3 in Kangiqsualujjuaq, n = 1 in Tasiujaq, n = 3 in Kangirsuk).
During the fall, “when there is strong wind and cold weather, some fish swim from the deep ocean (back in the coastal area)” (S. Morgan, Kangiqsualujjuaq). When salt water is becoming too cold in the coastal area, they tend to stop feeding and start to move upstream. Some participants think the char have eaten enough (n = 1 in Kangiqsualujjuaq, n = 1 in Tasiujaq). During the fall season, there is heavy rainfall, and the river flows increase, helping the fish to move upstream. For each river, the upstream migration usually happens during the same period, from year-to-year. However, the exact dates could change depending on the weather and the water level. Sometimes, the upstream migration happens later because the rivers are too dry and the fish have to wait for the rain, “they know they can climb the river as the water is deeper” (W. Cain Jr., Tasiujaq) (n = 3 in Kangiqsualujjuaq, n = 1 in Tasiujaq). One participant in Kangiqsualujjuaq thinks it happens later in recent years. The fish wait for high tides to start going back in rivers. Especially when there is a waterfall to pass, they wait for the full moon to be able to climb the fall (E. Snowball, Kangiqsualujjuaq (personal communication, 2019)).
Going back and forth (Inuit knowledge)
In Kangiqsualujjuaq and Tasiujaq, it has been observed that the fish are not going straight from salt water to freshwater but are traveling back and forth between the two environments. For example, in Tasiujaq, they start to enter in the Bérard River at the beginning of August, then come back to salt water, and they go back and forth between the estuary and the river, until the second week of August (n = 1). They finally go up in the river during periods of high tides and heavy rain.
Behaviour according to size (Inuit knowledge)
Different waves of upstream migrations are observed according to the reproduction status and the fish size. In Kangirsuk, according to the three participants, the char who are going to spawn in the fall are the first to migrate in freshwater. The first wave migrates upstream during the latter half of August. The second wave of fish, constituted by smaller individuals than the first wave or mature nonspawners, migrate from September to October. The last fish coming in freshwater are the largest char, because they tend to migrate further out in the ocean. In Kangiqsualujjuaq, some spawners (Aupalujaak, red char) stay in rivers during the summer (n = 3). The spawners are the first to go up tributaries, brooks, and smaller rivers to reach their spawning sites. They are already upstream while the smaller immature fish arrive in freshwater (n = 2).
Discussion and links between Inuit knowledge and western scientific literature
Arctic char have preferences for estuarine environments in proximity to freshwater and especially for nearshore habitat (Moore et al. 2016). Acoustic telemetry has confirmed fish movement between various estuaries and river systems using nearshore habitat (Spares et al. 2015; Moore et al. 2016), where Inuit are harvesting them. As Arctic char have to prepare their re-entry in freshwater by acclimating, the observed back and forth movements are likely a part of the osmoregulation process (Jørgensen and Johnsen 2014).
In the published literature, several factors were mentioned as trigger of the upstream migration. Jørgensen and Johnsen (2014) proposed satiety as the main factor triggering this migration, as mentioned by some participants. However, several interviewees explained that the fish were waiting for a combination of high tides and higher river flow to move upstream. Tides are a factor affecting Arctic char movement in estuaries as measured by telemetry in Frobisher Bay (Nunavut, Canada) (Spares et al. 2015) and are likely impacting their movements even once in freshwater, up to the head of tides. In several rivers, the fish can be found at the base of waterfalls until advantageous tidal conditions occur. The importance of river flow for the upstream migration is highlighted with the example of the Nauyuk Lake system, Nunavut (Johnson 1980a; Gilbert et al. 2016) where Arctic char have modified their migration patterns to adapt to a natural unsuitable river flow in fall that prevent them to access their spawning streams at that time. River length and mean slope is also a probable factor for earlier migration in the season, as Arctic char near Cambridge Bay (Nunavut, Canada) exhibit a shorter residence time in the ocean when they move to longer rivers (Moore et al. 2016). A combination of suitable water levels and required travel distances to favorable habitats are likely triggering the upstream migration.
The different waves of migration were recorded in Sapukkait and Sannirsariq systems, located north of Kangiqsualujjuaq, with large males (>700 mm fork length) caught at the end of the migration run (Boivin 1994). These larger fish likely benefit from this additional period at sea for feeding, thereby increasing their energetic reserve, as observed by interviewees that explained the last wave of migrants fed farther off the coast. It is indeed likely that large Arctic char use extended offshore geographic areas to feed, as shown from tracking experiments of congeneric Dolly Varden (Salvelinus malma) that traveled up to 152 km offshore (Gallagher et al. 2021). In addition, acoustic telemetry has shown that larger Arctic char use colder water than smaller ones (Mulder et al. 2019b), and thus may have more tolerance for the cooling temperature of the ocean in October.

5.3. Fall: spawning

5.3.1. Migration strategies and spawning behaviour

Inuit knowledge
In the three communities, spawning occurs around mid to late September and can happen until October. Sometimes, fishers catch some red Arctic char (Aupalujaak) with eggs in late October. In the fall, when the char are spawning, the males turn very red, and their flesh turns white. Females also turn red, but not as much as males. When the female spawners are in saltwater, the eggs that they bear are still small. Most of the maturation of eggs is done after the fish goes in freshwater, “freshwater makes them bigger” (T. Etok, Kangiqsualujjuaq) (n = 2, Kangiqsualujjuaq).
In Kangiqsualujjuaq (n = 3) and in a lesser extend in Kangirsuk (N. Eetook, Kangirsuk (personal communication, 2022)), it has been mentioned that some char who will spawn in the fall show a different life history with no summer migration in the ocean to feed. Indeed, some red char (Aupalujaak) remain red all year long and stay in rivers even in summer, feeding in brackish water and freshwater, as are also doing some lake trout (Salvelinus namaycush, Isiuralitaak). These Aupalujaak are lean (LNUK meeting, 2019, Kangiqsualujjuaq). They feed on macroinvertebrates in rivers, but not in lakes (n = 1, Kangiqsualujjuaq). They are still Iqaluppik and are different from landlocked char (Nutillik). A participant and a hunter from Kangiqsualujjuaq (E. Snowball (personal communication, 2020)) mentioned that the Aupalujaak that remain in freshwater have more eggs and are the main spawners. These Aupalujaak are waiting for the Arctic char spawners that have spent the summer in the ocean to go upriver for reproduction. While the silver, nonspawning char are still in the lower river reaches near the mouth, the spawners have already moved further upstream. They use the smaller tributaries that flow into the main rivers to spawn. The nonspawning fish do not stay around the spawning fish, they are in different locations. At the spawning location, there is often a large number of fish together. Before spawning begins, they remain around the spawning bed, slightly moving their body with the current. “Sometimes, females seem to climb on rocks, but it is to massage and soften their eggs” (LNUK meeting, 2019, Kangiqsualujjuaq). The males are preparing the spawning ground. Each female has her own spawning site. The reproduction has been described in Kangirsuk as follows: “The female fish is just there on the bed, never moving, but one male fish is always moving around the female fish to protect the eggs from other males. The male circles around the nest and moves upstream of the nest, so that the milt flows toward the female eggs with the current. After spawning, the males stay near the nests to protect the eggs and they become aggressive with other fish” (M. Airo, Kangirsuk). One participant in Kangirsuk mentioned that, although spawned males are tempted to catch the fishing hook and bait, they avoid catching them, because they know the fish have to protect their eggs. Once they have spawned in a site, they swim back and they go further upstream to another stream to spawn again (n = 2, Kangiqsualujjuaq). Once they have spawned in small tributaries, they go down the main river to reach their overwintering site. In Kangiqsualujjuaq, after the spawning, some Aupalujaak are slim and feeding occurs sporadically in the lakes until they gain some weight. This is the only time they feed in lakes (n = 1).
Discussion and links between Inuit knowledge and western scientific literature
Interviews in Kangiqsualujjuaq highlighted different summer migration strategies during the year of reproduction. The slim Aupalujaak (the red char) staying in rivers in Kangiqsualujjuaq, is evidence that some reproducers do not migrate during the year of reproduction. This was assumed from summer sampling of Arctic char in an overwintering lake of the Sapukkait system, located on the east side of the Ungava Bay, where 76.2% (n = 16) were in spawning color (Boivin 1994). A few cases of absence of marine migration during the year of reproduction have been documented. For example, Arctic char of the Hornaday River, Northwest Territories, remain in the river for almost 2 years before going back to the ocean (Harwood and Babaluk 2014). The absence of marine migration has also been observed in the Nauyuk system, in Nunavut, as the future spawning fish migrate upstream at the beginning of the summer, instead of swimming downstream to feed in the ocean (Johnson 1980a). Indeed, the local river hydrology does not allow an upstream migration to the spawning streams in the fall season. The forego of marine migration might be widespread in other Nunavik systems. Furthermore, as mentioned by participants, eggs are developing faster once in freshwater (Johnson 1980a), either due to the environment or to hormones level timing. The freshwater maturation and the absence of marine migration of some spawners, likely explain the low rate of fish with mature gonads caught near the river mouth with a counting fence during the upstream migration in Tasiujaq (10%) (Mainguy and Beaupré 2019a) and in Aupaluk (5.6% of females and 1.9% of males) (Mainguy and Beaupré 2019b). Hence, as several spawners might already be upstream, sampling in the lower reaches of a river might underestimate the actual fecundity rate. In other studies in which the fish were caught in various locations along the rivers but not near the river mouth, the proportions of spawners in total catch were estimated at 55% (Beddow et al. 1998) and 60% (Dempson and Green 1985).
In general, the spawning behaviour observed by participants was similar to what was documented in greater details by Brattli et al. (2018). Aggressive male behaviour with other fish during spawning act was also described by Johnson (1980a, from Fabricius 1953) for some individuals. A protective behaviour towards the eggs was observed by Frye et al. (2021) who also documented cannibalism on the eggs, increasing with male competition. Cannibalistic behaviour on the eggs was not mentioned by participants.

5.3.2. Spawning habitats physical characteristics

Characteristics of spawning habitats in Kangiqsualujjuaq and Tasiujaq (Inuit knowledge)
The spawning Arctic char can use several rivers to spawn, but the spawning sites are always at the same place. The riverbed is darker at the spawning sites (n = 1, Kangiqsualujjuaq). They can spawn in any type of stream, but they often use small rivers that are narrow and most often not wadable, because it is easier for them to go upstream. The spawning sites can also be located in lakes, mainly at the inlet or at the outlet, where “there’s not much current but the water is flowing and it’s on the gravel, just before the falls of the lake. Just above the falls” (S. Morgan, Kangiqsualujjuaq). Three participants think they could spawn also in deeper areas of lakes but have never observed them spawning there (n = 2 in Kangiqsualujjuaq, n = 1 in Tasiujaq). In rivers, they spawn in flowing water with “slow” or “medium” current velocity (on a scale of null, slow, medium, and fast velocity), and even still water. “When the current is strong, they use the side of the river, where there is less current” (K. Angnatuk, Kangiqsualujjuaq). In the medium size rivers, they spawn in relatively shallow areas. The best suitable water depth at the spawning sites was described by the participants between 0.6 m (2 ft) and 1.5 m (5 ft) in Kangiqsualujjuaq (n = 4) and between 0.6 and 1.2 m (4 ft) in Tasiujaq (n = 3). If they use shallower water, the spawning bed can be dewatered during dry periods. The fish in shallow water are not as protective as others (n = 1, Kangiqsualujjuaq). All participants thought Arctic char spawn in small gravel or in a combination of gravel and cobble. They can also spawn beside big boulders (n = 3 in Kangiqsualujjuaq; n = 1 in Tasiujaq), but do not spawn in the sand (n = 4 in Kangiqsualujjuaq; n = 3 in Tasiujaq). In Kangiqsualujjuaq, a participant mentioned that sometimes, they build a redd in fine gravel and they move little rocks with their tail to surround their redd. However, they most frequently lay their eggs in unprotected areas on the bed and the current disperse them between the rocks.
Characteristics of spawning habitats in Kangirsuk (Inuit knowledge)
According to the participants of Kangirsuk, Arctic char spawn in rivers, never in lakes. They usually spawn along the rivers that have strong current, but they use some sandy little bays where there is less current. There are also spawning sites in the Payne River, located near rapids, downstream of small islands and hence, also protected from the current. The spawning sites are dominated by sand, with some gravel (n = 3). In the fall, the copper brown spawning grounds contrast with the surrounding pale sandy riverbed. They do not spawn on pebbles or rocks. They spawn at a depth of 1.2 m (4 ft) to 1.8 m (6 ft) (n = 3). Before laying their eggs, they build a redd in the sand and then they bring little rocks around it, “it seems it is man hand done but it is done by the fish with their tail and head” (M. Airo, Kangirsuk). Participants think that the rocks prevent the eggs from rolling out of the redd and drift downstream because of the current.
Discussion and links between Inuit knowledge and western scientific literature
The characteristics of habitat use is linked to the local hydrogeomorphology. The spawning habitats used in Kangiqsualujjuaq and in Tasiujaq were similarly described, with the use of slow flowing water, the presence of gravel bed, and similar water depth. Few studies have described Arctic char spawning sites, but they showed similar characteristics of habitat use (Dempson and Green 1985; Cunjak et al. 1986). Spawning habitats described in Kangirsuk are rather different as they are located in calm bays along large fast flowing rivers, with little or no access to lakes and tributaries. In these bays, char use sandy substrate, which is rather unusual (Johnson 1980a). Local hydrodynamics and the presence of fluviatile surface deposits in Kangirsuk rivers (MRNF Québec 2004) explain the relative paucity of available spawning habitat and their peculiar characteristics.

5.3.3. Importance of water temperature

Inuit knowledge
All participants think that temperature is an important factor that can impact the spawning. The fish spawn when the water temperature is decreasing rapidly, but neither too cold nor too warm or the eggs will not survive (n = 4). However, slightly warmer water at spawning sites leads to larger growth than cooler spawning sites (n = 1). In Kuujjuaq, a hatchery operated by Nayumivik Landholding Corporation allows to stock the surrounding rivers with Arctic char fry. The project was led for several years by Allen Gordon. He was met outside of the regular interviews and explained that the eggs for the hatchery were collected in Tasiujaq a few years ago. He knew the fish were ready to spawn when the water temperature reached 6 °C. If there were a few days with air temperature above 13 °C–14 °C, the spawning was stopped and re-initiated once the air temperature decreased again (A. Gordon, Kuujjuaq (personal communication, 2020)). All participants stated that fish can locate the suitable sites for spawning because the fish know the river will not freeze to the ground. The water temperature could also explain the difference in eggs coloration (LNUK meeting, 2019 Kangiqsualujjuaq). Indeed, the fish that are in rivers located further north have reddish eggs that differ in color from those of southern Artic char, that are more of the orange color.
Discussion and links between Inuit knowledge and western scientific literature
All participants have pointed out that spawning is related to river temperatures as it triggers the beginning of the spawning season, and it can impact the eggs development. It has been shown in aquaculture that after at least a first week at an optimum maximum of 6 °C, lowering the water temperature was not only nondetrimental to the eggs development (Jeuthe et al. 2016) but that mortality increased if the temperature did not decrease below 5 °C during incubation (Jobling et al. 1993). From his work at Kuujjuaq hatchery, A. Gordon also established that in Tasiujaq, the same water temperature of 6 °C was also associated with mature eggs (A. Gordon, Kuujjuaq (personal communication, 2020)). Observations of char spawning behaviour in other northern regions, coincided with temperatures below 7 °C (Johnson 1980a; Beddow et al. 1998). River thermal regime is obviously a critical factor for anadromous Arctic char reproduction and warming waters due to climate change might impact the spawning timing and could affect eggs development.
The observed variation in egg coloration with latitude, mentioned during Kangiqsualujjuaq LNUK meeting, is likely linked to the latitudinal variation in prey availability, as egg pigmentation depends on the fish diet (Vuorinen et al. 1997) and thus might be indirectly linked to temperature and other factors such as oceanic currents.
Although all participants think that temperature is important for spawning, none of them had knowledge if spawning sites were located in areas of presence of underground spring, an established preference for congeneric Dolly Varden (Johnson 1980b; Stewart et al. 2010) or for a specific riverine population of Arctic char (Harwood and Babaluk 2014). Evidence of upwelling groundwater at location of redds was shown locally in the Koroc River, near Kangiqsualujjuaq (Cunjak et al. 1986). It is likely that several other spawning sites are located in upwelling groundwater areas or areas of high hyporheic flow that could help to locally regulate water temperature by preventing freezing of the eggs and by bringing cooler water later in the spawning season, as observed by Baxter and Hauer (2000) for bull trout (Salvelinus confluentus) in Montana.

5.4. Winter: overwintering, trapped fish, and disappearance

Overwintering (Inuit knowledge)

At the beginning of the winter, after the spawning period, Arctic char gather to reach overwintering sites in accessible lakes and in some specific areas of rivers. Individuals of all sizes can be observed together, including adults and juveniles, spawners, and nonspawners. Participants mentioned that the Arctic char can spend the winter in deep water, but also in shallow water because the fish know the places where the water does not freeze to the bottom, “they are aware of their environment, they know because they are moving constantly in the water” (K. Angnatuk, Kangiqsualujjuaq). The anadromous Arctic char do not feed for the whole winter.
Arctic char use different sites to overwinter from one year to another, they do not always go back to the same river or lake (n = 2, Kangiqsualujjuaq). Inuit participants do not think there is a particular purpose to the change of lake overwintering habitat, “it’s like visiting neighbors or going camping” (S. Morgan, Kangiqsualujjuaq). Participants in Kangiqsualujjuaq have observed that some year they are abundant in a lake and the next year there could be hardly any. Alternatively, a cohort in a specific year may have smaller average size, in contrast with the cohort in the following year that is composed of larger individuals. One participant mentioned that it is something they have noticed more frequently in the last 8 years than previously.
When they are in lakes they stay together, but not really aggregated because they have space. When they are in rivers, they get together very close. In Kangirsuk, overwintering sites are located mainly in rivers, and they remain in the same overwintering site for the whole winter.

Trapped fish (Inuit knowledge)

In Kangirsuk, when the ice is forming, fish can get trapped in some areas of the rivers as the ice formed around them from the bottom to the surface of the river. Participants have observed that the trapped fish stay alive all winter long by moving around to prevent the ice from forming, “they’re going to keep ice from freezing because they are all there, like a little city of char” (E. Grey, Kangirsuk). One participant told that “even if you fish in that hole whole day, all full day, you’re not going to finish, it’s full of fish (...). That’s why people who go fishing in the winter, they do not find them as much (in other locations). Because they are there” (J. Kudluk, Kangirsuk). The fish have scratches on their sides from swimming so close to one another. They cannot escape until the ice breakup. One participant told that when he went back at this spot where the fish remained the whole winter, while they were gone in late spring, he could see the imprints of the fish in the ice, i.e., small cavities under the ice. Participants stated that the fish do not go back to the site where they got stuck because they know that there is a risk of getting trapped. It happens in different locations every winter.

Winter disappearance (Inuit knowledge)

In some large lakes used for overwintering in Tasiujaq (e.g., Finger Lake) and in Kangirsuk (Tasirjuarusik or Virgin Lake), observers mentioned that Arctic char seem to “disappear” during the winter as they become scarce and hardly fished. They “reappear” and become easy to fish in late spring.

Discussion and links between Inuit knowledge and western scientific literature

The low-site fidelity of Arctic char to specific winter habitats has been established in the scientific literature, and contrast with their high fidelity to spawning hydrographic systems (Beddow et al. 1998; Kristofferson 2003; Moore et al. 2013; Gilbert et al. 2016). For western scientists, fish select the most easily accessible overwintering sites to minimize energy expenditure during migration, when they are not in a spawning year (Gilbert et al. 2016; Moore et al. 2017). Some participants view was rather that Arctic char use different overwintering lakes as a choice, to have some variety. Interannual variability in number and size of char observed by fishers is likely due to the broad diversity of life histories of Ungava Bay.
We did not find any documentation of Arctic char being trapped in restricted overwintering habitat with no ice cover although the phenomenon has been observed for other salmonids trapped in pocket of unfrozen upwelling groundwater (Power et al. 1999). It is however unlikely that the Arctic char observed in Kangirsuk schooled around a groundwater source as the location of trapped fish differs from one winter to another. The rivers used in Kangirsuk for overwintering are dynamic, with fast current, with the characteristics of rivers favoring the production of frazil and anchor ice (Brown et al. 2011). As anchor ice alters the usual hydrodynamic of rivers by the creation of anchor dams, the presence of this type of ice is likely one of the main reasons that the fish get trapped in small backwater areas, as observed by Inuit experts. The observed imprints of the fish in the ice are similar to the domes created by northern pikes underneath the ice surface during an anoxia episode preceding a winterkill, as they stayed in proximity of the surface ice cover, where the highest concentration of dissolved oxygen was measured (Magnuson and Karlen 1970). The trapped Arctic char might thus exhibit the same survival behaviour. The observation that fish are not getting trapped again on the same site is likely due to the variability and unpredictability of frazil dam locations.
The Arctic char temporary winter “disappearance” in large lakes has not been documented and remains to be elucidated. The fish likely stay in the deep portions of the lake, where temperatures may be higher than near the surface and volumes are large enough to avoid anoxia (Clilverd et al. 2009). Fish tagging and lake monitoring is currently ongoing in Tasirjuarusik Lake in Kangirsuk.

5.5. Spring and late spring: schooling, increased activity, and downstream migration

5.5.1. Schooling

Inuit knowledge
During springtime, in many lakes of Kangiqsualujjuaq, participants and several fishermen have observed schools of Arctic char swimming around together and keeping the lake surface locally ice-free: “When there are too many fish in one area, they melt the ice and they have a big hole there” (T. Unatweenuk, Kangiqsualujjuaq). This behaviour is not observed at the same areas than winter fishing areas. Several fishermen have observed this phenomenon and told that there were so many fish that the water was not visible, “they can be (found all the way) to the bottom. In this place, the ice is very thin” (E. Snowball, Kangiqsualujjuaq (personal communication, 2020)). Some fish have scratches on their skin. Such schooling behaviour is seen regularly in Tasikallak Lake (Short Lake), north of Kangiqsualujjuaq, where a winterkill occurred in 2002.
Discussion and links between Inuit knowledge and western scientific literature
The increase in light intensity in ice-free areas could explain fish aggregation, as it explained winter habitat selection for lake trout (Blanchfield et al. 2009). Another factor explaining the schooling of Arctic char associated with thin ice or open water, could be the presence of local groundwater springs, as it had been observed by Cunjak and Power (1986) with aggregation of brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) and brown trout (Salmo trutta) in rivers. However, this hypothesis remains to be verified in the case of Arctic char in lakes since the relative input of groundwater is small compared to the volume of surface water of a lake. Hence, the potential influence of groundwater on water temperature or dissolved oxygen content is likely to be less important than in a confined river. In the specific case of Tasikallak Lake, the observed schooling at a site of thin ice cover might be also explained by the risk of hypoxia/anoxia in the deeper zones of the lake, leading the fish to remain near the surface. Indeed, dissolved oxygen depletion was a possible cause of the winterkill that happened in 2002 (Côté 2002). The dissolved oxygen level of the lake was monitored during the winter 2021–2022 but did not decrease to critical values (unpublished data, Dubos V., St-Hilaire A., Laurion I., 2023). Whether the ice is melting because the fish are swimming or if the fish are swimming in previously open water remains unsolved.

5.5.2. Increased activity and downstream migration

Inuit knowledge
In late spring, when the ice is starting to melt, the fish congregate near the surface of open water areas and are swimming actively. They also “reappear” from the lakes where they could hardly be caught in winter, e.g., Finger Lake in Tasiujaq and Tasirjuarusik in Kangirsuk. A fisherman thought that during this period, they are trying to eat because they are easier to catch with hook than in winter (Anonymous, 2020, Kangirsuk).
When the ice cover of the overwintering lake starts breaking up and the river is flowing out of the lake, the char start their downstream migration to the marine environment. The downstream migration does not always happen on the same exact date from year-to-year, it depends on the timing of the ice break (n = 1 in Kangiqsualujjuaq). For instance, it starts between May and June in Kangiqsualujjuaq (n = 2). The downstream migration persists during the months of June and July when the fish go down from the upper streams to the main rivers and then to brackish water and the marine environment (n = 1 in Kangiqsualujjuaq).
Discussion and links between Inuit knowledge and western scientific literature
Acoustic telemetry has shown that some fish can start the downstream migration prior to sea-ice breakup (Hammer et al. 2021), probably to benefit from the rapid increase in primary (and consequently secondary) productivity in the spring (Druon 2017). Some fish even start their migration before river ice break-up (Smith 2020). An increase in appetite 3–4 weeks prior to downstream migration has been documented (Jørgensen and Johnsen 2014). The authors showed that the timing of increase of appetite seems to be controlled by endogenous factors, uncorrelated to temperature or food availability. This phenomenon is in adequation with the late spring ice-fishing period, when Inuit fishers observed that fish are active and are biting easily. A significant increase of anadromous Arctic char activity in lakes around the breakup period was also detected by telemetry (Mulder et al. 2019a). Although the authors pointed out that the increase of activity was correlated to water temperature, their measured temperature remained within the same range than in winter (<3 °C). It is thus likely that the recorded increase of activity would be in open water areas preceding the ice breakup. Indeed, contrary to the sole interpretation of telemetry data, Inuit hunters can observe simultaneously the fish swimming behaviour and the ice cover conditions. That is how they have noticed that some areas with open water or thin ice are linked to fish schooling.

5.6. Rearing of juveniles

The exact date of hatching was not known among the participants, but five out of eleven participants thought they hatched at the beginning of winter, and they spend their first winter as fry. Through his work, author P. May observed that at the Kuujjuaq hatchery, where the water used comes from a nearby lake under natural thermal regime and is not heated, hatching happens in January.

In Kangiqsualujjuaq and Tasiujaq (Inuit knowledge)

In Kangiqsualujjuaq and Tasiujaq, according to all participants, juveniles do not remain in a specific habitat. In summer, “they go everywhere” (n = 4, Kangiqsualujjuaq), “they go with the current and feed” (K. Angnatuk, Kangiqsualujjuaq). They can swim in any type of flows, except waterfalls. They can be found in shallow or deep water. However, a lot of small juveniles (presumably young of the year, fry) can be seen near spawning sites, in rivers and near lake outlets. Some participants (n = 2 in Kangiqsualujjuaq; n = 1 in Tasiujaq) thought they are more frequently found in lakes than in rivers, especially in the nearshore habitat. In mid-summer, they are found in shallow water, which is warmer than deeper zones. They always hide between rocks or behind boulders, in rivers and even in lakes (n = 2 in Kangiqsualujjuaq; n = 3 in Tasiujaq). They can be seen more easily at night with a flashlight (Elijah Snowball, Kangiqsualujjuaq (personal communication, 2019)) (Video: Dubos 2019).
Some participants have seen juveniles following the adults to the estuaries, in brackish water (n = 4). There are also many individuals in river mouths, in the tidal zone. The smallest ones are around 100–120 mm length (n = 2 in Kangiqsualujjuaq; n = 1 in Tasiujaq). However, participants stated that if they were to migrate in a complete marine environment, they would die. One experienced fisher mentioned that for the first time in 2019, he saw small Arctic char swimming in a layer of freshwater at the surface of salt water and the fish were avoiding the deeper, more salty water (T. Etok, Kangiqsualujjuaq (personal communication, 2019)). Once they are around 250 mm in length, they follow the adults to the marine environment (n = 2 in Tasiujaq). A participant in Kangiqsualujjuaq mentioned “at the age of four years old, they will go to the sea. Before, they’re feeding in the river” (B. Baron, Kangiqsualujjuaq). They come back to freshwater in the fall. In winter, juveniles can be seen in lakes. When ice fishing, participants see very small individuals. They can be found also in rivers where water depth is sufficient to avoid freezing (around 5 ft or 1.5 m).

In Kangirsuk (Inuit knowledge)

In Kangirsuk, participants mentioned that after hatching, fry stay near the spawning sites. They remain in the same area where they were born, during the first winter, the next summer, and the second winter. During this time, they avoid strong river current. They swim around small rocks, where current velocity is relatively low. They usually stay at the bottom of the river. As they grow bigger, they hide behind bigger rocks. One participant told: “As I grew up along this river (Ariaq/Payne) as a child, (...) I was catching those fish (±120–150 mm) when the ice was starting to form (...), when the ice could get strong enough to hold me as a little girl, that’s when I fished those little fish” (M. Airo, Kangirsuk).
During their second summer, the juveniles are bigger (around 150 mm), so they can swim in faster current. According to participants, juveniles do not spend many years in the river before doing their first migration to sea. “They grow fast and, as soon as they are able, they follow the adults into brackish water” (M. Airo, Kangirsuk). They can go to the salt water when their size is around 200–250 mm (n = 3).

Discussion and links between Inuit knowledge and western scientific literature

From the literature, incubation was measured in hatchery between 280 and 420 degree days for different populations, acclimation, and incubation condition (Jobling et al. 1993; Granier 2013). In natural environment, Dolly Varden hatching time is between 7 and 9 months (Stewart et al. 2010). Author VD observed the presence of floating eggs in two different systems around Kangiqsualujjuaq, the Koroc River (3 March 2020) and Tasikallak Lake (17 March 2020), where water temperature was measured below 1 °C (Video: Dubos 2020). Although eggs were not sampled, they were seen at sites identified by participants to be used by Arctic char for spawning and overwintering. The observation corresponded to approximately 7 months after the spawning season and their presence was possibly due to the hatching of Arctic char eggs.
As for spawning habitats, fry (young of the year) habitat use was described differently in Kangirsuk than in other locations. Fry remain near the redds in calm bays along fast flowing rivers with a significant mean slope like for example Kuugat (Buet) and Avaluk (Vachon) rivers which have slope of 4.2‰ and 3.6‰, respectively, for the first 30 km. Nonetheless, it has been shown from electrofishing data from Kangiqsualujjuaq and Tasiujaq that fry have a preference for riffle-type habitat (Dubos et al. 2022). Hence, the availability of this habitat type seems more limitative in Kangirsuk than near the other two communities where juveniles have access to various habitats and are able to show some site selectivity.
The juveniles of 1 year and more, called parr, are extensively using river mouths as summer habitat. Few of them were sampled using electrofishing in streams where fry were found in greater abundance (Dubos et al. 2022), suggesting the use of different habitat types, potentially including river mouths and estuaries. According to the size of the smallest parr observed in river mouths by participants (±100–120 mm), they are likely to be 1 year old (Mainguy and Beaupré 2019a). At that age, they were observed leaving their fry habitat in proximity to spawning grounds and swimming in the current in Kangirsuk.
The use of the estuarine surface layer by pre-smolt first migrant was recently measured by acoustic telemetry (Atencio et al. 2021). In this study, temperature or undefined environmental factors were proposed to be the selection factor for the surface position and the notion of thermohaline stratification was not mentioned (Drinkwater and Jones 1987). Nonetheless, the observed water stratification by an Inuk fisher is an explanation for the use of the surface layer by pre-smolts, allowing them to access more productive water in the estuary without being affected by salt water. In Kangirsuk, the minimum size at which some fish are able to fully cope with saltwater, was identified by participants to be between 200 and 250 mm. A size of 200 mm would correspond to a 2-year-old fish, whereas a size of 250 mm would correspond to a 3-year-old fish (Mainguy and Beaupré 2019a). Two years was the minimum age measured near Kangiqsualujjuaq, although 3-years-old fish were much more frequent (Boivin 1994). In Tasiujaq, two participants mentioned a minimum size of 250 mm, which would correspond to a 3 year old fish (Mainguy and Beaupré 2019a). This size is comparable to the minimum size of 220 mm allowing hypo-osmoregulation capacity of Arctic char in an experimental setting (Schmitz 1995). In Kangiqsualujjuaq, Le Jeune (1967) mentioned, with some uncertainty, a first entry in ocean at the age of 3 or 4 years. Growth mostly occurs from the first entry in the ocean to the age of 10 (Le Jeune 1967; Johnson 1980a).

5.7. Interactions with other fish species

Inuit knowledge

In several lakes used by anadromous Arctic char (Iqaluppik) during the fall and the winter, lake-resident Arctic char (Nutillik) and lake trout (Isiuralitaak) are also present. Although Iqaluppik and Nutillik are in sympatry, they do not use the same areas to spawn according to participants in Kangiqsualujjuaq. In Kangiqsualujjuaq and Kangirsuk, participants mentioned that lake trout and Arctic char can prey on each other and eat each other’s eggs. Nonetheless, it has been mentioned in Kangiqsualujjuaq that lake trout and Arctic char are often seen together in fall and winter, “like best friends” (E. Snowball and S. Etok, Kangiqsualujjuaq (personal communication, 2019)). Some fishers even think that lake trout could help Arctic char to spawn as they have been seen around Arctic char during the spawning period. They sometimes find hybrid fish, that look like Arctic char, but with a lake trout tail. These hybrids are more frequent in the northern regions on the eastern side of Ungava Bay.
Brook trout (Aanaak) can be found in several streams also used by Arctic char. Both species use different spawning habitats, but brook trout will feed on the eggs of char when they are spawning (LNUK meeting, 2019, Kangiqsualujjuaq). However, participants think brook trout are not a problem for Arctic char populations. Author P. May has knowledge that they will also hybridize with char on occasion as he has seen quite a few hybrids in the George River, 100 miles inland from Kangiqsualujjuaq.
In Kangiqsualujjuaq, Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar, Saamaak in Inuktitut) is present in the George River and the Koroc River. In Tasiujaq, more and more Atlantic salmon are going up the Bérard River at the beginning of July (n = 1, Tasiujaq). They did not use to go up the river. In both communities, participants think they did not seem to be a problem for Arctic char. Nonetheless, in Tasiujaq, they have been seen to scare the juvenile char (n = 1, Tasiujaq).
In Kangiqsualujjuaq, some fishers mentioned that there was an increase of other fish species like brook trout, lake whitefish (Coregonus clupeaformis), and sucker species (Catostomus sp.) (LNUK meeting, 2019, Kangiqsualujjuaq). In Tasiujaq, one participant mentioned that sometimes people catch suckers in the Finger Lake with gillnets and use them for dog food. Suckers seem to eat the eggs of Arctic char.

Discussion and links between Inuit knowledge and western scientific literature

Studies have shown the hybridization of Arctic char with lake trout across Canadian Arctic (Hammar et al. 1989; Wilson and Hebert 1993). Evidence of Arctic char and brook trout hybrids was also documented in Labrador (Hammar et al. 1991). As the hybrids seem difficult to distinguish from brook trout, it may explain why no mention of these hybrids were made during the interviews. Brook trout were observed near spawning Arctic char by Cunjak et al. (1986), but were rather suspected to eat eggs. The impact of the increasing presence of Atlantic salmon in some Nunavik Rivers still remains unknown (Bilous and Dunmall 2020). However, they might feed on juvenile Arctic char, as a participant observed salmon scaring young char. Since 2017, new occurrences of pink salmon (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha) were documented in the Canadian Arctic, including one found in Kangirsuk in 2019 (McNicholl et al. 2021). Since then, three other specimens were confirmed in Ungava Bay (V. Nadeau, MFFP, 2022, unpublished data). However, according to the interviewees, the communities do not see any significant impact due to competition, although these various species live in sympatry with Arctic char. In Northern Europe, competition and predation of brown trout on Arctic char parr have been observed (Heggenes and Saltveit 2007; Amundsen and Knudsen 2009), but the species is absent from the Canadian Arctic.
Cannibalism was observed in landlocked populations of Arctic char in Norway (Knudsen et al. 2016) or in Nunavut, in summer captures in Lake Hazen (Sinnatamby et al. 2012) or with a prevalence in winter in a lake of Cumberland Sound (Young et al. 2021). However, anadromous Arctic char does not seem to have such a cannibalistic behavior, as for example, on 409 individuals captured in the same Cumberland Sound lake, all had empty stomach in winter but one (fed on unidentified fish remains) (Young et al. 2021). From the captures in summer and winter at seven other sites in Cumberland Sound by Moore and Moore (1974), 10% of fish showed some stomach content but none was identified as cannibalistic. In lakes north of Kangiqsualujjuaq, the 239 Arctic char captured along one winter all had empty stomach (Boivin and Power 1990).

5.8. Predators

Inuit knowledge

The main predators of Arctic char mentioned by participants are black bears (Ursus americanus). In the three communities, they are more and more frequently observed along the rivers when Arctic char are spawning. River otters (Lontra canadensis) are also predators of juvenile char. In Kangirsuk, participants mentioned that in a specific lake and a river area there have been a lot of otters for a long time, and, for this reason, they think that Arctic char might not spawn anymore in these locations. Nonetheless, they do not seem to impact the fish population in Tasiujaq or Kangiqsualujjuaq where they are also present. In Kangirsuk, falcons (Falconidaesp.), osprey (Pandion haliaetus), and bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) have also been mentioned as predators and are more frequently seen in recent years than in the past.

Discussion and links between Inuit knowledge and western scientific literature

Inland predators of Arctic char like otters and black bears have been scarcely mentioned in the literature. Beddow et al. (1998) mentioned their potential impact to adult char in some Labrador rivers where black bears were also present. The northern limit of black bear distribution range overlaps the southern range of Arctic char distribution in Nunavik. However, black bears are more frequently observed further north than in the past decades (Cuerrier et al. 2015). By extending the overlapping territory with Arctic char, they could become significant predators, especially during the reproduction period when the fish are schooling in shallow rivers.

5.9. Observed changes in abiotic factors influencing habitat use

5.9.1. Decrease in size and catch

Inuit knowledge
In Kangiqsualujjuaq, participants mentioned that the mean size of Arctic char was decreasing and explained they had previously experienced that when the size gets smaller, the population decreases. Indeed, one participant told that in the 1960s, overfishing due to the commercial fishery supplying the community’s co-op store led to an important decline of Iqaluppik population until the 1970s (B. Baron, Kangiqsualujjuaq). However, since the closure of the commercial fisheries in the late 1960s, two participants agree that the fish population has been partially restored and abundance is higher than it was 50 years ago. In Kangirsuk, fishers have observed that the quantity of catches is decreasing, and the Arctic char stock is thought to be declining.
Discussion and links between Inuit knowledge and western scientific literature
Commercial fisheries or overfishing can lead to a shift in size distribution through the selection of the larger and older fish (Johnson 1980a). This size truncation could be detrimental to population recruitment (Berkeley et al. 2004), as it was observed in Kangiqsualujjuaq in the 1960s to 1970s by participants and documented by Gillis et al. (1982). Furthermore, it was shown that Arctic char length and age increased with distance from the community, while experimental commercial winter fisheries were in place since fishing was conducted mainly in the closest sites from the community (Boivin et al. 1989). Hence, the size reduction observed currently in Kangiqsualujjuaq likely indicates that the local stock is under pressure.

5.9.2. Lower hydrology, drought, and higher water temperature

Inuit knowledge
In recent years, participants from the three communities observed several changes in rivers, impacting fish habitats. Most participants mentioned that the lack of rain during summer and fall seasons can be a problem because the rivers are too dry for the fish (n = 3 in Kangiqsualujjuaq, n = 1 in Tasiujaq, n = 3 in Kangirsuk). The upstream migration can be affected because of the low water level in rivers, and some fish even die. It has happened more frequently in the last decade and some participants mentioned that the difference in mean water level during the summer, compared to past decades, was important. Nonetheless, the impact does not show on the largest rivers which do not seem to be as affected. It has been mentioned in Kangiqsualujjuaq that for 10–15 years Arctic char habitat has changed substantially, water temperature is increasing, and char are looking for cold water refuges. The spawning sites identified by elders and visited by the previous generations of fishers might not be used anymore (Elder from Kangiqsualujjuaq (personal communication, 2019)). For example, a small lake, linked to the Koroc River is much less frequently used for spawning because aquatic plants have grown and are thought to block its outlet (Anguvigak meeting, 2019, Kangiqsualujjuaq). In Tasiujaq, in the last 5–10 years, rivers are much drier in summer and fall and that is an impediment to fish passage in reaches where there was no problem before (n = 1). Water temperature is also higher. Algae are now growing in areas of spawning habitats. Shrubs along the rivers are growing fast and one participant mentioned that their roots could also take more water from the river. Talking about a specific river branch, a participant mentioned: “It has been really dry in the last five years. We used to go there fishing, there was lot of red char in the river. We barely see them. I do not think they really spawn much anymore” (W. Cain Jr., Tasiujaq). Also, in Tasiujaq, mortality of juveniles has been observed during a warm summer day (A. Gordon, Kuujjuaq (personal communication, 2020)). In Kangirsuk, in addition to the lack of rain during the fall, it has been mentioned by several fishermen that there is less snow in winter and that winds are stronger.
Discussion and links between Inuit knowledge and western scientific literature
Char growth has been linked, although weakly, to some environmental variables (Chavarie et al. 2018), especially rainfall for the adults and air temperature for the juveniles. Inuit observations on how a low hydrology can impact upstream migration and reproduction, as well as how high temperatures can affect the juveniles are direct and show a link between climatic variables and char condition. The lack of rain in summer and fall has been broadly observed in the three communities over the last decade and is likely a consequence of climate change. This trend for summer and fall was not yet visible in historical climate simulations based on the climatic normal data before 2010 at the scale of the whole Nunavik region (Charron 2015), and a significant increase in precipitation is even observed from the historical data for the Ungava Bay before 2014 (1981–2010 reference period) (Barrette et al. 2020). The day-to-day observations of Nunavik Inuit were not yet recorded in historical data from the previously cited studies. The long-term future climate evolution (2041–2070) also predicts an increase in summer and fall precipitations, for both moderate- and high-emission scenarios (Ouranos 2021). The discrepancy between Inuit observations and long-term climate predictions could be either due to a local and temporary decrease trend, to scale discrepancies, or to prediction uncertainties in regions with scarce data (Charron 2015). This highlights the need of more local meteorological and hydrometric data collection to monitor climate evolution and its impact on river hydrology. Predicted increase in mean temperature and of growing season is in accordance with Inuit observations.

5.9.3. Water level, thawing permafrost, and erosion

Inuit knowledge
In Kangiqsualujjuaq, an experienced fisher mentioned that in some lakes, winter water levels are lower than in the past decades, as some boulders are now showing above the surface where it was only ice and snow in the past (E. Snowball, 2020, Kangiqsualujjuaq). Also, in Kangiqsualujjuaq fishers observed that “Before, char were spawning under small rocks and now, there is sand covering all” (LNUK meeting, 2019, Kangiqsualujjuaq). In Tasiujaq, it has been mentioned that “the riverbed looks like the rocks are growing up” (W. Cain Jr., Tasiujaq). In addition to the lack of rain, permafrost thawing is thought to be the cause.
Discussion and links between Inuit knowledge and western scientific literature
In the interviews conducted in Nunavik by Cuerrier et al. (2015), permafrost thawing was also thought to be the reason of the decreasing level of lakes. In addition to a potential lake drainage from the bottom (although talik zone of unfrozen ground is already present), erosion of river banks and gullying lead to enlarged rivers and lakes outlet (Rowland et al. 2010; Vincent et al. 2017) (Fig. 4). Hence, for the same flow, water level of rivers and lakes tend to decrease. Landform and soil of Arctic region are the results of dynamic, relatively recent geological processes and are still active today (Allard 1996), leading to dynamic river bank erosion, which is also an important source of sediment input in the rivers, that could restrict fish passage. Post-glacial isostatic movements could be a factor of lower water level in coastal streams (Fracz and Chow-Fraser 2013).
Fig. 4.
Fig. 4. (a, b) Riverbank erosion in Kangirsuk that has for consequence to enlarged river, decreased water depth, and increased sediment load in the river, impeding the fish passage. (c) Lake outlet in Tasiujaq showing multiple channels and water tracks. The erosion and increase in these potential outlets lead to lower water level of the lake as the total potential flow output at the outlet of the lake increase (Source: Google Earth).

6. Conclusions and future research directions

The strength of Inuit knowledge about Arctic char ecology lies in the detailed observations of the fish behaviour simultaneously done in conjunction with other environmental observations integrated over centuries. The lifecycle and general behaviour of the fish described by Inuit knowledge holders were largely consistent with existing scientific studies; however, the contextualization of scientific literature in relation to this knowledge has made it possible to complement some western scientific findings and to highlight relevant avenues for research on Arctic char ecology.
The forego of marine migration by the char who will reproduce during the fall has been scarcely described in the literature. In the Kangiqsualujjuaq region, there is evidence of a large number of spawners (Aupalujaak), identified as the main reproducers, that remain in rivers during the summer. Hence, there is a risk of underestimating fecundity rate by sampling the fish during the upstream migration in the lower section of rivers only. When the river system is used for subsistence fishing, it is recommended to ask local Inuit fishers for the potential presence of Aupalujaak in the rivers in summer. Further studies would be relevant to assess what is the extent of this behaviour in other regions. The existence of specific riverine populations has also to be differentiated from the future spawners of the anadromous form.
The importance of water temperature in natural environments and the potential selectivity of spawning sites according to the presence of groundwater spring-fed areas remains to be established for Arctic char.
The winter schooling of Arctic char in open water areas or in locations with thin ice was, to our knowledge, undocumented by scientific literature. Whether the ice-free or thin-ice conditions are due to the char swimming or on the contrary, whether the char are aggregating in thin ice or open water areas, for better oxygenation, still remains to be elucidated.
Juvenile Arctic char are often observed by Inuit at river mouths and even in estuarine areas. The use of the freshwater surface layer by pre-smolt was confirmed by telemetry from the literature (Atencio et al. 2021). Thermohaline stratification is likely allowing them to reach estuarine and tidal environments at an early age.
The fact that mean temperature is increasingly agreed upon by scientists and Inuit knowledge holders. However, the decrease in rain amounts observed during critical season for Arctic char, does not agree with the scientific analyses and model predictions (Charron 2015; Barrette et al. 2020). River flows are however known to trigger upstream migration, according to Inuit observations, and a suitable water level is essential to access the reproduction sites. This highlights the importance of Inuit knowledge in hydrology and the need for more data collection in Arctic regions, especially in Nunavik regions where meteorological and hydrometric stations are scarce. The impact of changes in hydrology and temperature on spawning habitat could be addressed by future research.
More information on the impact of black bear predation would be an asset.
We recommend that all research, if not Inuit-led, should at least be co-developed with Inuit communities.
This study provided further insight into anadromous Arctic char ecology of Ungava Bay, with some intercommunity specificities informed by Inuit knowledge holders. It also brought to light fish behaviour not yet documented (e.g., winter fish schooling), or documented punctually in other geographic areas such as the nonmigrant spawners in Kangiqsualujjuaq. It also led to new explanations of some scientific observations and research avenues. This highlights how Inuit knowledge holders are of prior importance in ecological studies to increment existing documented knowledge.


We wish to thank the LNUK boards members from Kangiqsualujjuaq, Tasiujaq, and Kangirsuk for their interest and assistance. Véronique Dubos wishes to thank Mikhaela Neelin (McGill University) for her support to plan the first interviews. We are thankful for the comments of McCombie Annanack (Kangiqsualujjuaq). This project is supported by Makivik Corporation and MFFP. The authors thank the editors and all the reviewers for their constructive comments.


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Supplementary material

Supplementary Material 1 (DOCX / 3.75 MB).

Information & Authors


Published In

cover image Arctic Science
Arctic Science
Volume 9Number 3September 2023
Pages: 526 - 544


Received: 31 March 2022
Accepted: 20 December 2022
Accepted manuscript online: 6 January 2023
Version of record online: 21 February 2023

Data Availability Statement

Data generated or analyzed during this study are not publicly available due to the nature of this research. Each LNUK have ownership, control, and possession of the data and permission regarding access or use of data would need to be directed to them or local authorities.

Key Words

  1. Arctic char migration
  2. knowledge co-production
  3. Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit
  4. Two-eyed seeing
  5. Indigenous knowledge



Institut National de Recherche Scientifique (INRS), 490 rue de la Couronne, Québec, QC G1Y9A9, Canada
Author Contributions: Conceptualization, Data curation, Formal analysis, Methodology, Writing – original draft, and Writing – review & editing.
Peter May
Nunavik Research Center, P.O. Box 179, Kuujjuaq, QC J0M 1C0, Canada
Author Contributions: Investigation, Validation, Writing – original draft, and Writing – review & editing.
Carole-Anne Gillis
Gespe'gewaq Mi'gmaq Resource Council, 1 Marshall Way, Listuguj, QC G0C 2R0, Canada
Author Contributions: Formal analysis, Methodology, Writing – original draft, and Writing – review & editing.
André St-Hilaire
Institut National de Recherche Scientifique (INRS), 490 rue de la Couronne, Québec, QC G1Y9A9, Canada
Author Contributions: Conceptualization, Funding acquisition, Methodology, Project administration, Resources, Supervision, Writing – original draft, and Writing – review & editing.
Normand Bergeron
Institut National de Recherche Scientifique (INRS), 490 rue de la Couronne, Québec, QC G1Y9A9, Canada
Author Contributions: Conceptualization, Methodology, Supervision, Writing – original draft, and Writing – review & editing.

Author Contributions

Conceptualization: VD, ASt-H, NB
Data curation: VD
Formal analysis: VD, C-AG
Funding acquisition: ASt-H
Investigation: PM
Methodology: VD, C-AG, ASt-H, NB
Project administration: ASt-H
Resources: ASt-H
Supervision: ASt-H, NB
Validation: PM
Writing – original draft: VD, PM, C-AG, ASt-H, NB
Writing – review & editing: VD, PM, C-AG, ASt-H, NB

Competing Interests

The authors declare there are no competing interests.

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Cited by

1. Characterization of anadromous Arctic char winter habitat and egg incubation areas in collaboration with Inuit fishers
2. Characterization of anadromous Arctic char winter habitat and egg incubation areas in collaboration with Inuit fishers
3. Fuzzy logic modelling of anadromous Arctic char spawning habitat from Nunavik Inuit knowledge

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