Study looking into decline of Arctic grayling in northeast Alberta

·3 min read

A study in Janvier, Alta., is trying to find out what happened to the local population of Arctic grayling, a once prominent freshwater fish.

Arctic grayling, a member of the salmon family, is classified as a species of special concern with the Alberta Endangered Species Conservation Committee, meaning without human intervention, the species may be under the threat of extinction.

Chief Vern Janvier of Chipewyan Prairie First Nation, 400 kilometres northeast of Edmonton, said when he was a growing up in the 1970s, he would fish in a local creek for Arctic grayling, considered a delicacy.

A few years later those fishing trips stopped, because the fish were no longer around, Janvier said.

"We really wanted to know if there was any fish left," Janvier said. "It's a fish that we used to eat that we haven't had for a long time. We haven't been able to catch them."

He'd like to see the population bounce back, as "it'd be a good thing for my grandchildren to experience the fish."

Water samples show evidence of fish

Now the First Nation has teamed up with a consultant to study the over-winter habitat of the Arctic grayling, to see where they live, and what could be behind the population's decline.

The study uses eDNA, which is DNA collected from environmental samples like water. It's a process that can tell researchers where the fish is found, without having to use potentially harmful practices like electrofishing.

The researchers take water samples and get them tested to see if Arctic grayling are present in the water body.

Last winter, samples of eDNA were collected from locations identified by elders. The fish were found in three out of four of the areas.

Janvier said he was excited by the discovery and the research.

"For me, as a chief, it shows ... you can put some basis on scientific knowledge. But the ability to mix the Indigenous knowledge and scientific knowledge is probably the biggest success and we need to do more of that," he said.

Study in 3rd year

Lead researcher Sarah Hechtenthal, owner of Owl Feather Consulting, said she used western science and traditional knowledge to craft the study.

The project is in its third year of funding, having received a total of $228,600 since 2018 from Environment and Climate Change Canada.

Researchers will be back out this winter to sample other potential habitat locations, depending on COVID-19 restrictions.

The study is now using data loggers in the water, to help Hechtenthal understand what made the rivers and creeks in the area ideal habitat for Arctic grayling in the first place.

Stuart Janvier, industry relations coordinator for the First Nation, said this information will be helpful for future industrial development in the area such as oilsands projects.

"We want to make sure our traditional lands and the wildlife and the environment it's going to remain intact," he said.

"We are the protectors of the environment."