Arctic char

Published by the Norwegian Polar Institute Lag rapport

The Arctic char is found throughout the Arctic region. In the Norwegian Arctic, i.e. Svalbard, Bjørnøya and Jan Mayen, it is the only freshwater fish. The char stocks are managed on the basis of regulations adopted in 1997. Fishing within the nature reserves has been prohibited since 1997, and anyone wishing to fish must first obtain a licence from the Governor’s office.

Arctic char in 55 water courses in Svalbard

Two types of Arctic char

There are two types of char, anadromous or sea-run char, and landlocked char that live permanently in fresh water. In Europe, natural stocks of anadromous char are only found in the three northernmost counties of Norway, on Iceland and on islands in the Barents Sea, especially Spitsbergen and Novaya Zemlya.

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Anadromous char in 25 water courses

Anadromous char have been found in 25 watercourses in Svalbard. The two types of char are descended from the same ancestors, but it is uncertain which factors determine the life history and strategy of the various populations.

Obviously, for anadromous char to be present they must be able to migrate between salt water and fresh water. The most important factor in triggering a migratory life history appears to be the availability of food. Nutritionally, it is very advantageous for the fish to leave fresh water for the sea, where they can gain weight and grow faster. In certain watercourses, both landlocked and migratory char are found, but they may also live in separate watercourses.

Fishing can threaten the stock

A certain amount of char is fished in Svalbard, mainly in fresh water. Most fish are caught in gill nets, and watercourses containing anadromous char are most attractive.

Earlier overfishing with gill nets in some localities resulted in a steep decline in local stocks, because the large spawning fish were caught. Some char are also caught using gill nets in the sea, and there is some fishing with fishing rods, as well as ice fishing. 

The char stocks are now managed on the basis of regulations adopted in 1997. Fishing within the nature reserves has been prohibited since 1997, and anyone wishing to fish must first obtain a licence from the Governor’s office.

Regulation on mesh sizes

To prevent excessive catches of large sexually mature char, the minimum mesh size for gill nets in watercourses containing char was increased to 52 mm in 1997. Before this, the minimum mesh size was 40 mm, but this appears to have resulted in overfishing of char measuring about 35-40 cm (400-1000 g). This resulted in a large proportion of the spawning population of landlocked char being removed from some watercourses in Svalbard.

The Governor manages the fishery

Today, a small number of Svalbard residents are issued with fishing licences each year. There is growing interest in ice fishing, but very few people use fishing rods. The Governor‘s office manages the fishery, and all fishermen are required to report their catches.

Research needs

Sound management of Arctic char in the Norwegian Arctic requires better knowledge of the populations in the various watercourses. We know too little about the species’ biology, both in fresh water and in the sea. Arctic char is an important reference species; in other words, studies carried out in Svalbard are very valuable for comparison with similar studies carried out elsewhere. Because of this, applications to farm char in Longyearbyen have been refused. Strict guidelines will be issued for fishing and biological studies of char on the archipelago.

Indicators have been developed in order to monitor the state of the Arctic char in Svalbard, they will be published on the website MOSJ in 2016.