Blasting, building and stripping bring fish back to Nepihjee River

Kuujjuaq char hatchery helps fish population jump fivefold in six years


KUUJJUAQ — Ever thought of milking a male fish? Or stripping a female fish? Once you get the technique down pat, it’s not too hard, according to Allen Gordon.

In August, Gordon and a group of volunteers headed out to Finger Lake near Tasiujaq, where they milked male Arctic char for sperm and then stripped eggs from female Arctic char.

This annual collection is part of a multi-year ambitious project. The goal: to enhance and restore fish stocks in the Nepihjee River watershed near Kuujjuaq — and perhaps in other regions of Nunavik as well.

The entire milking and stripping process is not as hard as you might think, Gordon explains: first you catch the char in dip nets, then you take the fish out one at a time and squeeze them carefully. They’re back in the water in no time.

Gordon says it’s easy to see the difference between the male and female fish.

“The males are more colourful, with a hooked jaw. The females are rounder,” he says.

This year, during a single day, the team collected 130,000 eggs — a tiny portion of what a single female char, eight to 10 years old, produces over the course of a spawning season.

“In the wild, only 12 per cent survive,” Gordon says.

Finger Lake is a particularly good place to find spawning char because its water is clear and shallow, with a good current.

“It’s just a perfect spot,” Gordon says. “We’ve been happy that the population of Tasiujaq have authorized us to get eggs.”

The plan is that these eggs will grow up to be char, which will then be seeded in the Nepihjee River. Hopefully, they’ll migrate upstream and return there to spawn again. The river’s watershed until recently lacked a robust resident char population.

In 1999, explosive experts used dynamite to blast a four-foot deep channel around two previously insurmountable waterfalls along the river where they drain into Ungava Bay. Two weeks of manual labour were then required to remove obstacles and debris from the newly-blasted fishway, and to Gordon’s surprise, the fish started to jump up.

Char quickly discovered the new fishway, says Gordon, because 20 to 30 per cent of this fish species, known as iqaluppik in Inuttitut and “anadromous Arctic char” by biologists, usually heads out to look for new spawning sites.

A second channel was made in 2004 near Stewart Lake. Then, in 2005, to make migration easier for the char, small changes to the original fishway were made to increase the current between the channel and pool waters and encourage the char to swim up. The height of some of the waterfalls was also lessened by constructing barriers and dykes.

The results to date? More than 1000 were spotted heading up river this year — an increase from about 200 in 1999.

Gordon’s dream to seed the lakes with char has received help from the Nunavik Research Centre, the Nayumavik Landholding Association and many volunteers.

“They believe in this project. A lot of people help to make it a success.”

After collecting the eggs at the end of the summer, it’s time to start another phase of work when the eggs are transferred to Kuujjuaq’s hatchery

There, Sandy Sappa of the Nunavik Research Centre spends a few hours every week sorting through the incubating eggs, removing dead ones. About seven of 10 make it: a much higher percentage than in the wild.

When the eggs hatch after Christmas, the fry — as the young fish are called after they hatch — will go into larger containers where they can grow larger. Next summer, they’ll return to the Nepihjee River.

The hatchery, located nearby the municipal water pumping station, received $80,000 in new equipment this year. To date, the entire hatchery operation represents a $200,000 investment by Kuujjuaq’s landholding corporation — one that should pay off handsomely in char someday.

And char are important to Nunavimmiut — these fish are the second largest contributor of food to households, studies show.

To make sure 2006’s crop of char stays healthy, Gordon pops in a couple of times a day to check on the hatchery.

A few larger char also now live there. That’s because someday Gordon hopes there won’t be any need to go out in nature to milk and strip mature char — and that can be done right in Kuujjuaq at the hatchery.

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