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Quttinirpaaq National Park of Canada


Arctic Char © Parks Canada / Doug Stern

The only freshwater fish in Quttinirpaaq National Park is the Arctic Char (Salvelinus alpinus). Char have a circumpolar distribution across Canada, from the Yukon in the west, to Baffin Island in the east, and northward to Ellesmere Island. Char are the most northerly freshwater fish found in Canada.

Generally, char spend the majority of their lives in freshwater lakes, but where opportunities exist, they will enter marine waters for short periods to feed. These anadromous char, as they are known, migrate downstream during ice break-up in the spring and spend the summer feeding along the coast at sea. They return upstream before freeze-up to spawn and overwinter in freshwater.

Spawning may begin as early as mid-August and is completed by mid-October. The fish spawn over the gravel bottoms of lakes that are deep enough to protect against freezing. Eggs remain in the gravel for about 180 days, hatching in late March to early April.

All char spend their early lives in freshwater and it appears that a combination of conditions play a role in determining whether or not a fish will leave for the sea. Although it is believed that some of the Quttinirpaaq char are anadromous, it has yet to be confirmed. The life histories of anadromous and nonanadromous arctic char are very different since the anadromous char can access the richer food resources of the ocean. Nonanadromous char are smaller than anadromous char due to slower growth rates, and are highly parasitized.

Char within Quttinirpaaq seem to have more colour variation than char found elsewhere in the arctic. While most of the char have spots on their sides, their colors range from dark green backs with silvery sides, to dusky brown, or almost black. During spawning, the sides and bellies turn orange-red and the fin margins turn white. Spawning males also develop a hooked lower jaw.

While small populations of arctic char occur in several freshwater systems within the park, the main population occurs at Lake Hazen. The char are the only fish species within Lake Hazen and there are only sparse populations of zooplankton and phytoplankton for them to feed on. There is no bottom vegetation, even in the shallows. It appears that the larger arctic char must resort to cannibalism to obtain enough food.

The char in Lake Hazen have a relatively low reproductive potential. They mature late in life, do not spawn annually once mature, and females have a relatively low fecundity.