Kuujjua River Arctic Char: Monitoring Stock Trends Using Catches from an Under-Ice Subsistence Fishery, Victoria Island, Northwest Territories, Canada, 1991 – 2009
A standardized, harvest-based monitoring program was conducted during the main under-ice subsistence fishery for Arctic char (Salvelinus alpinus) of the Kuujjua River for 18 winter fishing seasons between 1991 and 2009. The program was a response to the concern of Ulukhaktok residents that Arctic char were becoming fewer in number and smaller in size. Mean harvests averaged 1225 (SD 262) Arctic char annually for 1996–2002 and 568 (SD 274) in 2003–09, or roughly 40% and 20% of the harvest levels estimated for 1971–78 (2900, SD 842) and 1988–92 (2943, SD 1072). There was no statistical relationship between the size of the annual harvest (number of fish), and the corresponding mean annual catch per unit effort (CPUE) value (R2 = 0.0141, p = 0.761). Arctic char were fully recruited to the fishery at age nine, with 82.4% of the sampled catch (n = 3288) ranging between 8 and 12 years and composed almost exclusively (99%) of non-spawning adults. Over the time series, temporal trends were not detected (p > 0.05) in mean annual CPUE (27.3 Arctic char/100 m/24 h, SD 14.15), mean fork length (593 mm, SD 78.1), or mean age (9.9 years, SD 2.0). Annual mortality rate showed a weak, but significant, decreasing trend over the series (R2 = 0.354), and there were no statistical trends in annual values of the Brody growth coefficient (R2 = 0.1337, p = 0.164). Variation in mean annual somatic condition indices was correlated with timing of sea ice clearance in spring (R2 = 0.474, p = 0.002), probably because prey quality, quantity, or both are higher in summers following earlier spring blooms in the marine environment. Together, the absence of temporal trends in CPUE, fork length, and age of the harvested fish and the apparent improvement in survival (lower mortality), suggest that the stock has been stable at the harvest levels observed during the monitoring period. The stock may also be realizing some improved fitness, which is due to changes in environmental productivity and appears to be linked, at least in part, to the timing of spring breakup in eastern Amundsen Gulf.