The Effects of Sea Ice Reduction on the Subsistence of Arctic Char (Salvelinus alpinus), Dolly Varden (Salvelinus malma) and Arctic Cisco (Coregonus autumnalis)

This paper explores the effects of climate change and induced sea ice retreat on arctic char, dolly varden and arctic cisco. These fishes are vital to the subsistence lifestyles of Inuit, Inupiat, and Inuvialuit communities living in the boroughs of northern Alaska and the Northwest Territories of Canada.


This paper explores the effects of climate change and induced sea ice retreat on arctic char (Salvelinus alpinus), dolly varden (Salvelinus malma) and arctic cisco (Coregonus autumnalis). These fishes are vital to the subsistence lifestyles of Inuit, Inupiat, and Inuvialuit communities living in the boroughs of northern Alaska and the Northwest Territories of Canada. Arctic cisco were found to be at the greatest risk, and will suffer from the decrease in salinity that is predicted to result from continued loss of ice. Arctic cisco rely on easterly winds for recruitment of young-of-the-year, and will suffer population decreases due to changing wind patterns that may hinder this recruitment. Freshwater arctic char may be at risk for habitat loss due to the draining of lakes overlaying permafrost that is predicted to melt as the Arctic Region continues to warm. Dolly varden that typically overwinter in deep lakes may change their migration patterns to spend winters in the open ocean as the water warms posing problems to subsistence communities that catch migrating dolly varden. Introduction of new species are also predicted, which may place arctic cisco, dolly varden, or arctic char in competition for resources. As the climate continues to change, it will be necessary to monitor and regulate fisheries in the area, and to adapt rules and regulations to adjust to the changing ecosystems. To monitor the fish we recommend annually taking intensive samplings and accounting for the ecological and demographic factors that will affect the samplings to obtain precise populations numbers.


As greenhouse gas levels rise and the earth continues to warm, the temperature changes have the potential to impact the world’s ecosystem on a grand scale. In particular, the melting of Arctic sea ice has affected and will continue to affect the species living in the Arctic region, including the three fishes discussed in this paper: arctic char (Salvelinus alpinus), dolly varden (Salvelinus malma), and arctic cisco (Coregonus autumnalis). This paper explores the effects of alteration of the populations of these fishes with emphasis on fisheries and ecology as a result of arctic sea ice retreat.

Changes in the size and population of these fishes have a large effect on the ecosystems of which they are a part. They occupy a key spot in the center of the food chain: dependent upon microorganisms for food, and serving as prey for many species such as seals and large birds. All three are often eaten by humans and are particularly important to the subsistence lifestyle of the Inuvialuit communities in Northwest Territories, Canada and to the Inupiat and Inuit people of northern Alaska (Knopp, Furgal, Reist, and Babaluk, 2012). Arctic char have historically accounted for 95% of catches in these regions and have recently declined to 200t per year from their peak of 700t per year in the 1960s (Zeller, Booth, Pakhomov, Swartz, and Pauly, 2011). Dolly varden are harvested in the Yukon and Kuskokwim areas and are the preferred subsistence fish in areas where salmon are unavailable. Arctic cisco are fished along the Colville River and constitute large parts of the fishing harvest for many Inupiat communities. All of these fish have evolved in and are well adapted to a cold arctic environment, and are thus susceptible to warming temperatures.

In this paper we will focus on the Chukchi Sea as our main location of interest. We have found that as a result of the sea ice retreat commercial fishing, shipping, and as oil and gas extraction are creeping into the Chukchi Sea. While this development has an effect on fishes, this paper will focus mainly on the effects of sea ice reduction on arctic char, dolly varden, and arctic cisco.

Sea Ice Estimates

The sea ice in the Arctic Ocean has been declining due to the Earth’s climate change. Certain gases such as carbon dioxide and methane trap heat and prevent it from leaving the atmosphere. This is commonly known as the greenhouse effect. Many of these gases are necessary in certain quantities in order to keep the Earth at a temperature sustainable for life; however, human release of these gases has contributed significantly to the amount of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, causing the Earth to warm beyond its natural temperature. This added heat is the primary cause of Arctic ice melting (Gray 2007).

Another component to this issue is the mechanism of negative feedback loops, for example the albedo-ice feedback loop (Maslanik et. al. 2007). Ice has a high albedo, or reflective quality, while the open ocean water has a low albedo and absorbs heat rather than reflecting it. As more ice melts, more open water is exposed and absorbs more heat, contributing further to the loss of Arctic sea ice. In addition, warmer open water can lead to warmer surrounding temperatures, a possible contribution to the observed increase in precipitation (Knopp et. al. 2012).

The Arctic has shown signs of warming since 1980, such as decreased snow cover and a decrease in annual sea ice by 2.7% per year (Quante 2009). In the late 1990s, the Arctic saw a substantial drop in ice coverage. Between 1996 and 1998, sea ice in the Canadian Basin declined from 60-80% concentration to 15-30% (Shimada et. al. 2006), decreasing by 15.0-16.7% per year during that period. Since 1980, September sea ice has decreased at an overall rate of 7.4% per decade, with record lows seen in 2007 (Quante 2009.)

Surface temperature over the Arctic Ocean also rose in the late 1990’s, which also likely served as a factor in the sea ice decline. The main source of heat in this region is the Pacific summer water (PSW) layer (Maslanik et. al. 2007). In 1998, just before the significant drop in sea ice coverage, there was a significant rise in the temperatures of the PSW and the pacific winter water (PWW). 58% of the current multiyear ice is made up of relatively new ice (2-3 years old) and 7% of the ice pack is at least five years old. This compares to 57% of the ice pack at being at least five years old and 35% being less than three years old in 1987, a drastic change in the physics of the arctic sea ice. Newer ice is thinner and more prone to melting than the older, thicker ice (Fig. 1), which has now nearly disappeared (Maslanik et. al. 2007).

Since the initial drop in the late 1990’s, sea ice in the Arctic Ocean has been declining rapidly and the Arctic is now expected to be seasonally ice-free before the end of the 21st century. These sea ice losses have likely played a large part in the sea level rises that occurred between 1993 and 2003. The temperature in the arctic is predicted to increase by another 8˚C (14˚F) by the end of this century, and it is predicted that the summer sea ice might be restricted to only the northern coast of Greenland and Canada by 2040 (Wang and Overland 2009).

There are many diagrams, graphs, and models on sea ice retreat. Some show past calculations, others predict the future for the Arctic Sea ice, and some compare the past and future. Unfortunately the sea ice history is limited; satellite records only go back to the mid-1970s and there are sparse ship records from the 19th Century. To fill in the gaps of the past, scientist use models that are mathematically represented; they are used to find historical patterns in order to predict future changes. These models are called General Circulation Models, which not only records sea ice, but the climate of the entire world. Graphs are very useful because they compare annual data with predictions created by models. Diagrams offer a visual of ice retreat over a certain time period (Fig. 1) (National Snow and Ice Data Center, 2014).

Figure 1. Shows the sea ice diagram in 1988 in comparison to the 2013 sea ice diagram. Source: (National Snow and Ice Data Center, 2014)

Biology of species

Arctic cisco, dolly varden, and arctic char are all cold-water fish that possess the antifreeze gene. This gene found in Arctic organisms codes for four specific proteins that bind to the surface of ice crystals, preventing them from growing. This prevents the organism from freezing, allowing to survive in the frigid conditions of the Arctic environment (Davies and Hew, 1990).

Arctic cisco is a whitefish commonly found in the Beaufort Sea and in the Colville River. They thrive in water with 15-25 ppt salinity; when salinity falls below this range catch rates are shown to decrease (Moulton, Seavey, and Paussana, 2010). Young arctic cisco rely upon easterly winds in order to migrate to the Colville River to mature, after which they move to the Mackenzie River to spawn (Alaska Department of Fish and Game, n.d.). Many changes and weather patterns can result from loss of sea ice, including changes in wind strength and direction. This could hinder the recruitment of juvenile arctic cisco.

Arctic char and dolly varden are both members of the Salvelinus genus. These fishes are able to survive in a wide variety of conditions, partially due to their ability to shrink their digestive systems when food is scarce and to grow them again when food is abundant. This allows them to take advantage of times when food is plentiful to store plenty for harder times, making them extremely adaptable to different environments. Their bodies are also able to store lipids well, which helps them survive in colder temperatures. Full-grown arctic char vary greatly in size, from 2-10 pounds (Alaska Department of Fish and Game, n.d.) and northern dolly varden grow up to 27 pounds. The two fishes are very similar and differ mainly in their choice of habitat: it is rare to find anadromous dolly varden in the northern areas of Alaska, whereas arctic char are found solely in freshwater lakes. Dolly varden are one of the most widespread fishes in Alaska and are found in the coastal areas of Southeast Alaska, the Gulf of Alaska, the Bering Sea, Chukchi and Beaufort seas, and the Mackenzie River. They are also located in Interior Alaska and the Brooks Range (Alaska Department of Fish and Game, n.d.).

Physical and chemical aspects of the Chukchi Sea

Together, the Beaufort Sea and the Chukchi Sea are one of Alaska’s three Large Marine Ecosystems (LMEs). The Chukchi Sea shelf is shallow (approximately 50 meters in depth) and extends approximately 800 km northward from the Bering Strait to the shelf break. The flow of water generally flows northward over the shelf due to the Pacific-Arctic pressure gradient. This flow opposes the northeasterly winds. The Chukchi shelf has unique physical and ecological characteristics due to the Bering Straits inflow of nutrients, heat, carbon, and organisms (Hopcroft, Bluhm, and Gradinger, 2008 ).

The Bering strait flows through the Chukchi Sea through three main currents (Fig. 2). One flows northwestward and exits through Herald Valley, with some spreading eastward. Another current flows northward across the central part of the shelf and then splits with one going northeastward toward the continental slope and the other traveling eastward toward the Alaskan coast. The third current flows northeastward along the Alaskan coast toward Barrow canyon. During the summer the third current includes the Alaska Coastal Current (ACC), which originates south of the Bering Strait. Each current carries different amounts of nutrients and carbon; the Herald Valley pathway is cooler, richer in nutrients, and has a higher salinity than the ACC (Hopcroft et. al. 2008).

Figure 2. Shows the currents that flow through the Chukchi Sea.

Source: (

The Siberian Coastal Current (SCC) also flows around the Chukchi Sea from the East Siberian Sea. The SCC contains cold, ice-melt waters with low salinity and poor nutrients. As the SCC nears the Bering Strait it narrows and turns, mixing with the waters exiting the strait. The mixed waters then are most likely transported through Herald Valley and the central shelf.

The Chukchi Sea has a very productive ecosystem due to seasonal ice cover and a shallow sea floor. The sea provides nutrients and habitat for the many organisms that that live in the area (Audubon, 2013). In spring and summer there is an intense phytoplankton bloom, which depends on sea ice cover, nutrient availability, and river runoff. This phytoplankton bloom is caused by the algae that live in the sympagic zone directly under the sea ice.

There are eight salts present in seawater, which are thus present in the ice. However, since they are more dense than the ice that surrounds them, the salts trickle out over time, leaving behind brine channels approximately 1mm in diameter (M. Ridgway personal communication, Nov. 10 2014). This results in the ice becoming fresher than the water below. The layer of water underneath the ice is called the sympagic zone, and is home to hundreds of species of sea ice algae, which provide food for many species of zooplankton (krill, copepods, etc). In the spring, water warms and ice melts, resulting a layer of fresher water on the surface of water with higher salinity, due to the differences in density. This is a form of stratification known as a halocline. The halocline, coupled with the warmer springtime water, results in the annual algal bloom, providing food for all these species of zooplankton, which serve as food for many species of anadromous fish as they migrate north (M. Ridgway personal communication, Nov 10 2014). Less ice in the Chukchi Sea will mean less habitat for ice algae to grow, leading to less nutrition for zooplankton and less food for migrating fishes.

As a result of the sea ice retreat shores will be less protected from stormy weather, winds, and waves, resulting in rapid coastal erosion. The water will warm and will likely have a lower salinity due to an increase of precipitation and runoff. The changes in weather patterns will affect the biology within the sea due to of the changing temperatures and ocean stratification. These changes in the sea will affect the populations and number of species in the sea (Fig. 3), which will affect the Inuit, Inupiat, and Inuvialuit tribes whom use these resources for subsistence. (T. Weingartner personal communication, Oct. 2014). Changes in wind patterns will affect the migration of arctic cisco. Increased easterly winds may be helpful for juvenile recruitment, while increased westerly winds are likely to have negative effects.

Effects of Sea Ice Retreat on Species

When temperatures warm, the metabolism of ectothermic organisms, which include fishes, rise. This means that the organism must take in more nutrients and energy in order to grow. Arctic char are less susceptible to this than some species, but could be affected if the water continues to warm into the more northern regions where food tends to be less ample, leading the char to have a high metabolism with little food. A Norwegian study (Jensen, Johnson, and Saksgård, 1989) showed the temperature range in which arctic char feed and behave normally to be 3–16˚C, and their prime temperature for growth is 11-14˚C. For dolly varden, the highest survivable temperature is 20˚C. It is probable that, in some lakes inhabited by dolly varden, water will warm to temperatures that exceed 20˚C. While lower levels of water may remain cooler, the majority of food production occurs in the warmer levels, which may inhibit feeding for dolly varden (C. Casipit personal communication, Nov. 7 2014).

Melting ice, coupled with increased precipitation and runoff, could cause salinity to decrease, which could have detrimental effects on arctic cisco and other organisms that have evolved within a certain salinity range. Additionally, under current climate change patterns the area could see a decrease in the easterly winds necessary for recruitment of young of the year. A study in the Colville River area (Moulton et. al. 2010) showed that in years in which these winds were lower, the harvest of Arctic Cisco in subsistence communities decreased. In a few instances in the 1980 and 1990s, one westerly storm of 3-4 days was sufficient to halt juvenile recruitment for the year. Thus, the increase in storms predicted to follow loss of sea ice could prove detrimental to the arctic cisco population . This may be one factor contributing to the decrease in whitefish in Selawik, Alaska, which include arctic cisco.

Several effects of sea ice retreat have the potential to deprecate wild fisheries habitats. In Alaska arctic char live in freshwater lakes, and dolly varden overwinter in the deep water of these lakes, some of which were formed on top of permafrost in the arctic regions of Alaska and Canada. Continued increase in temperature could cause this permafrost to melt, draining these lakes and killing all organisms living in them (J. Moran personal communication, Oct 27 2014).

It has been suggested that a longer warm season in the Arctic may lead to more productivity for anadromous populations, leading to a more productive breeding season and larger harvests (J. Moran personal communication, Oct 27 2014). Less sea ice may lead to more habitat for dolly varden and arctic cisco in the wintertime, and it may become less necessary for dolly varden to retreat to large lakes for the winter. However, many subsistence communities rely upon dolly varden and typically catch them as they migrate between the ocean and the lakes. If this migration were to change or to cease completely, this could have a significant impact on those communities. Villages would be forced to find new fishing grounds, or to find other species to fill their needs (C. Casipit personal communication, Nov. 7 2014). In 2012, native communities in Noatak reported less dolly varden, and Selawik reported a decrease in whitefish including arctic cisco. Both communities confirmed a less predictable timing of fish movement (Moerlin and Carothers 2012), providing support that these changes in migration pattern have already begun.

Introduction of new species is expected as the Arctic region continues to warm, and poses a host of problems, including new predators, competitors, and parasites. In many areas the sea ice acts as a barrier, keeping out certain predators such as seals. As the ice melts they are expected to push into the northern territories. Freshwater populations could see more large birds coming in as the temperature increases (J. Moran personal communication, Oct 27 2014). 


As the Arctic Ocean continues to warm, species dependent on the ice are expected to suffer population decline, and southern species are expected to move north. Arctic char are expected to continue to survive due to their flexibility as a species, but may find themselves competing for resources with other pelagic fishes. Specifically, salmon have recently been seen in the North Slope Borough, where they are not usually common (Stephenson 2006). Additionally, salmon carry the salmon louse parasite, which can infect other fishes and causes problems with osmoregulation, as well as high levels of chloride, blood glucose, and plasma cortisol. This infection has a high mortality rate and has the potential to negatively affect the species overall (Bjørn, Finstad, and Kristoffersen, 2002). However, some suggest that increase of pink salmon into the North Slope area may have some benefits (C.Casipit personal communication, Nov. 7 2014). Pink salmon bring with them several nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, which could lead to a flourishing ecosystem. Additionally, they may provide food for those communities in areas which are affected by the changes in migration routes of dolly varden and arctic cisco (Fig. 3).

Dolly varden, arctic char, and arctic cisco feed on zooplankton. These microorganisms are mainly transported by currents and have little control over their destination. All species of zooplankton are adaptive to their environment: over time, they adjust to the specific light, temperature, and salinity of their environment, filling many niches within different ecosystems. However, zooplankton are sensitive to sudden changes, with small abrupt changes leading to significant change within the zooplankton concentration. The diversity of species and abundance of zooplankton in an area can determine the health of an ecosystem. Zooplankton are under threat from ocean acidification, which could affect all three species and other species that rely on zooplankton for food (Marine Bio, n.d.).


There are 400,000 to 1.3 million indigenous people living in the Arctic region, including the Inuit and Inupiat people in northern Alaska and Inuvialuit communities in the Northwest Territories in Canada. They depend upon the land for their survival, and thus climate change and sea ice retreat have the potential to significantly impact their traditional lifestyle. In 2012, Noatak reported less dolly varden, and Selawik reported a decrease in whitefish including arctic cisco. Both communities confirmed less predictable fish movement (Moerlin and Carothers 2012.)

Arctic char is a highly prized part of the Inuit diet. Char and other local fish are regarded as an important part of their traditional lifestyle, which the Inuit view as necessary to their health and survival. Any significant decline in arctic char could likely be filled by other fishes in a subsistence diet; however, arctic char are higher than most fishes in fat and protein content (Hoppner 2014) and are thus an important source of nutrition for these and other peoples who consume them as part of a traditional subsistence lifestyle.

Dolly varden are used for subsistence in communities in the Bristol Bay and Kotzebue areas (Fall et. al. 2011). They are important to communities in which salmon is not abundant, particularly those in the North Slope such as the Yukon and Kuskokwim areas (C. Casipit personal communication, Nov 7 2014).

Arctic cisco are prized by the Inupiat people in Nuiqsut, Alaska and surrounding areas, and have become increasingly popular in recent years. Catch rates (Table 1), however, are now lower than in the 1980’s, before the rapid sea ice decline began; however, further study is necessary to find a strong link between climate change and decreased catch rates (Moulton et. al. 2010).









Char (includes arctic char and dolly varden)




Table 1. Data for subsistence fisheries in Kaktovik, Alaska, before and after the major sea ice decline in

1997 (Alaska Department of Fish and Game, n.d.).

Conclusions and solutions

Arctic char and arctic cisco are currently labeled as Least Concern on the IUCN red list, an organization that analyzes the threat level of species and subspecies. Dolly varden are slowly declining, but are not in immediate danger. It is our conclusion that the largest risk factor for all three fishes is climate change, including sea ice retreat. There are steps available to slow climate change, but the current trends are irreversible. Habitats of the fishes will change in the future due to climate change and humans need to identify and monitor these areas in order to protect them. Overfishing could also be a major issue in the future. Fisheries must monitor and report their stocks to avoid over harvesting, especially considering the stress of climate change already on the fish populations. Careful and accurate fisheries monitoring will be necessary to avoid overfishing. As the climate warms, new species are able to move into new regions; the fishes will compete for resources and may be exposed to new predators. A better understanding of how climate change will affect all animals is greatly needed (Lambe, Gillman, Hansen, and Thomas, 2010).

As populations of Arctic species grow or decrease, and as new species enter the region, the state will need to be prepared to adapt its subsistence regulations. For example, even if the Arctic climate change does not directly impact the threat status of arctic cisco or dolly varden in the North Slope Borough, it will likely alter their migration patterns, making them more difficult for subsistence users to obtain. At the same time, populations of pink salmon may be increasing, providing an alternative (C. Casipit personal communication, Nov. 7 2014). It is vital that the regulations remain flexible and open to adjustments as the climate and ecosystem continue to change, and help the native people to adapt.

The best solution now is to carefully monitor all the fishes and observe how their habitats are evolving and effecting them. There are multiple ways to monitor fish; choosing how to sample and characterize them is important. More intensive sampling and accounting the ecological and demographic factors of the sampling will lead to more precise samplings (Pope, Lochmann, and Young, 2010). In conclusion, the habitats and lifestyles of these fishes will be changed due to sea ice reduction and we must continue to monitor them to preserve the Arctic ecosystem.

Works Cited

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The Effects of Sea Ice Reduction on the Subsistence of Arctic Char (Salvelinus alpinus), Dolly Varden (Salvelinus malma) and Arctic Cisco (Coregonus autumnalis)

This paper explores the effects of climate change and induced sea ice retreat on arctic char, dolly varden and arctic cisco. These fishes are vital to the subsistence lifestyles of Inuit, Inupiat, and Inuvialuit communities living in the boroughs of northern Alaska and the Northwest Territories of Canada.

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