Arctic char (Salvelinus)
Arctic char are one of the five species of char within the salmon family. They are related to the brook, lake and Dolly Varden (or bull) trout. They are long, slender fish that vary greatly in color depending on the time of year and the environment in which they live. In fact, color varies so widely that many are thought to be a separate species or subspecies, creating a debate among experts.
Arctic char may be brown, olive, yellow, gold, orange, red, deep green, blue or silvery, though most shade to silver on the sides and white on the belly. An identifying feature of arctic char is colored, usually violet or pink, round spots distributed along the sides of their bodies.
Arctic char have a small pointed head. They have teeth only in middle front part of their mouths. The tail is slightly forked.
Arctic char can be very difficult to distinguish from their relatives, especially when compared to the Dolly Varden trout. However, there are some features that separate the arctic char. Their head is usually shorter, the tail slightly more forked and the base of the tail narrower. Also, the leading edges of the lower fins are white.
Arctic char diet depends on location and environment. However, their diet generally consists of a mixture of insects, mollusks and small fish. Arctic char will often go the entire winter without eating. Their metabolic rate slows and they rely on the fat accumulated during the summer feeding season. As a result, growth is very limited during the long, cold winter months.
Arctic char are widely distributed throughout the world's arctic region, though they are found in some non-arctic areas. They are the most northerly-distributed freshwater fish in the world and are the prevailing species of fish in the arctic region.
They exist primarily in the pure, cold rivers and lakes of arctic territories. They are known to inhabit waters within 500 miles of the North Pole.
Arctic char are native to the cold streams and lakes of Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Scandinavia, Scotland, Ireland, England and Russia. In North America they can be found in areas ranging from the Bering Sea and Arctic coast east to Hudson Bay, Baffin Island, Maine and New Hampshire. They are present in the greatest number in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut provinces of Canada.
In Alaska, the only known arctic char are of the freshwater variety. They can be readily located in small lakes in the Brooks Range, Kigluaik Mountains, Kuskokwim Mountains, Alaska Peninsula, Kenai Peninsula, Kodiak Island and within a limited area of the interior near Denali Park.
There are two sub-groups of arctic char: sea-run and freshwater. Although anadromous arctic char live part of their lives in ocean waters, none live exclusively at sea.
Freshwater arctic char prefer clean, shallow water at the mouths of tributary streams. Because of the cold water temperatures, they prefer to reside near the surface or upper levels. In rivers, they will seek out pools and runs because they offer similar conditions to those found in the shallow water of lakes.
Sea-run arctic char generally stay in shallow inshore water very close to the river from which they migrated, where food is most plentiful. However, they will migrate to more productive areas if lack of food warrants. Migrations of 20 to 30 miles are common, but they have been known to migrate as far as 600 miles.
Although they have been a staple of the Inuit diet for centuries, it is only since the 1940s that they have been caught commercially and sold to restaurants in the lower United States.