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At a Glance

'At a Glance' offers a brief summary of key findings for each of the 13 Alaska Salmon and People regions.

Dive Deeper

Select 'Dive Deeper' for an in-depth look into the patterns and processes leading to the diversity of the 13 Alaska Salmon and People regions we see today.

At a Glance:  Emerging salmon fishing futures in the Arctic

In the Arctic region of Alaska, connections between salmon and people are in their infancy. Salmon are just one harbinger of change in this region.

  • Map: Jared Kibele, Rachel Carlson, and Marie Johnson. 2018. Elevation per SASAP region and Hydrologic Unit (HUC8) boundary for Alaskan watersheds. Knowledge Network for Biocomplexity.  doi:10.5063/F1D798QQ.

Iñupiaq names for salmon

  • Amaqtuuq (pink salmon)
  • Iqalugruaq (chum salmon)

Below are key SASAP findings for the Arctic region – for the full story choose Take a Deeper Dive

The Arctic is warming at the fastest rate of any region of Alaska, yet is still the coldest area.

A lack of consistent monitoring and an unfamiliarity of local people with many of the species of salmon make it difficult to know whether salmon numbers are increasing.

Despite increasing use of salmon by local people, we do not know whether the actual abundance of salmon is increasing in the Arctic. The consistent subsistence harvests of chum salmon (primarily) followed by pink salmon support the evidence that these species are established in the region, but this too is unknown. As the climate warms, it is likely that more rivers will become suitable to spawning salmon. However, the current temperatures during the summer growing months are not yet favorable for rapid growth. In addition to freshwater conditions, populations of salmon can only become self-sustaining and rooted in place if they are able to successfully migrate back and forth to the ocean. Currently it is unknown whether the Chukchi Sea region of the Arctic Ocean is conducive to juvenile salmon survival.

Average temperature in each SASAP region, 1900 – 2016. Jared Kibele and Leslie Jones. 2017. Historic air temperatures in Alaska for 1901-2015, with spatial subsetting by region. Knowledge Network for Biocomplexity. doi:10.5063/F1MK6B60.


Emerging subsistence salmon fisheries in the high Arctic are just one of a suite of environmental and social changes occurring in this region.

Arctic Slope communities are heavily engaged in subsistence livelihoods. Fishing has always been a stable component of the seasonal round of subsistence production, but salmon has not been a key resource in this region. Pink salmon and chum salmon have been documented in this region at least since the 1800s, but only recently have salmon harvests been increasing in communities such as Utqiaġvik and Wainwright. Some view salmon as a pest species, while others are participating in emerging salmon fisheries and learning new knowledge about processing these fish.

A catch of amaqtuuq (pink salmon) Elson Lagoon, Utqiaġvik, July 21, 2011. Photo: Shelley Cotton

The region encompasses a mix of jurisdictions; however, both state and federal salmon regulations impose few restrictions with no annual harvest limits and few restrictions on gear.

Salmon governance in the Arctic Region faces few challenges as salmon returns provide for existing harvest levels with few regulatory restrictions. State and federal regulations allow year-round harvest of salmon with no annual harvest limit and no permits or reporting requirement. State regulations authorize use of gill nets and beach seines, with federal regulations also allowing use of rod and reel. Harvest numbers recorded in 2014 are considered representative of contemporary harvest levels and show high reliance on chum and pink salmon. Compared to other regions, salmon make up a limited portion (about 3%) of overall subsistence harvest.

Setting a net in Elson Lagoon, Utqiaġvik, August 16, 2011. Photo: Courtney Carothers

The role of salmon in the subsistence economy of North Slope Borough communities is growing, consistent with an expanding range of salmon in the Arctic.

Compared to most other areas of Alaska, salmon are a relatively minor portion of subsistence harvests in Arctic District (North Slope Borough) communities. Comprehensive surveys show that about 3% of the area’s subsistence harvest is salmon. Marine mammals (50% of total by weight) and land mammals (33%) make up most of the harvest. Residents of Arctic District communities are reporting observations of increasing runs of salmon along with increasing subsistence harvests and uses. There are issues with identification of species of salmon in subsistence harvests in the Arctic District. For example, local residents often refer to ocean bright salmon as “silvers,” leading to misidentifying chums as coho in some harvest overviews (see similar issues in Yukon region).



Composition of subsistence salmon harvest in Arctic District Communities, 2014

Composition of subsistence salmon harvest in Arctic District Communities, 2014. Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Division of Subsistence. Subsistence and personal use harvest of salmon in Alaska, 1960-2012. Knowledge Network for Biocomplexity. doi:10.5063/F18P5XTN.

Case Studies

Salmon Colonization of a Rapidly Changing Arctic: The Intersection of Ecosystems and Sociocultural Systems

Photo: Rita Frantz Acker, accessed from North Slope Borough
Arctic sockeye salmon. Photo by Craig George
A catch of chum salmon from Elson Lagoon, Utqiaġvik, August 20, 2011. Photo: Courtney Carothers
A catch of pink salmon Elson Lagoon, Utqiaġvik, July 21, 2011. Photo: Shelley Cotton

Utqiaġvik fisherman using a small skiff to pick his gill net, August 15, 2011. Photo: Courtney Carothers

Utqiaġvik fisherman using a small skiff to pick his gill net, August 15, 2011. Photo: Courtney Carothers

Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Division of Subsistence. Subsistence and personal use harvest of salmon in Alaska, 1960-2012. Knowledge Network for Biocomplexity. doi:10.5063/F18P5XTN.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Division of Subsistence. 2018. Subsistence harvest information by region, community, resource, and year, 1964-2015. Knowledge Network for Biocomplexity. doi:10.5063/F1S75DNC.

By Peter Westley and Courtney Carothers

One of the most coherent and pervasive signals of climate change is the poleward shifts in species distributions and altered timing of key life history events such as spawning or migration (reviewed by Parmesan et al. 2006). In freshwaters of the continental United States, coldwater adapted salmonids have increasingly little suitable habitat owning to rapidly warming temperatures (Wenger et al. 2011). In stark contrast, ecosystems of the Arctic are only now approaching warm enough temperatures to potentially support viable self-sustaining populations of Pacific salmon (genera Oncorhynchus) or Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar). Salmon colonizing the Arctic represents a fascinating intersection of the biophysical and sociocultural aspects of the Alaska salmon system. While the biological and physical aspects related to successful salmon colonization are relatively known given our understanding of salmon ecology, the responses to salmon by the human system and the ecosystem impacts of a novel species are far from clear.

Despite a lack of compelling evidence, it is widely thought that invading Pacific salmon are likely to have negative impacts on local species established in the Arctic (Reist et al. 2006). The potential for competitive exclusion of local species such as whitefishes, Dolly Varden, lamprey, or sticklebacks seems unlikely as these species coexist throughout much of the range of Pacific salmon. Experimental and field-based work to quantify the competition between Pacific salmon (coho salmon) and Dolly Varden indicate low risk for competition as species exploited resources uniquely from one another, thereby facilitating coexistence in small streams (Dolloff and Reeves 1990). Similarly, biological interactions between local and invading salmon are unlikely to markedly impede the probability of establishment. Though once the subject of a statewide sponsored bounty based on perceptions of being a prolific predator, Dolly Varden are not major consumers of juvenile salmonids in many systems, including the Chignik region (Roos 1959).

In contrast, the weight of evidence suggests that colonizing Pacific salmon may provide beneficial subsidies to freshwater ecosystems and directly influence the growth of local fishes through the consumption of salmon eggs and flesh during the spawning season and after natural death of spawners. Where examined, the annual energy intake by species such as Dolly Varden is dwarfed by the effect of spawning salmon during a relatively short window. Indeed, the importance of the salmon subsidy is reflected in the seasonally flexible digestive capacity of Dolly Varden who ramp up their internal hardware for processing salmon eggs during the time they are available and then shrink their stomach and other organs during the winter and thereby save on energy while they wait for the next cycle of salmon nutrients (Armstrong and Bond 2013). The role of salmon-derived subsidies on freshwater growth of juvenile fishes is well known and thus it seems likely that the colonization of spawning Pacific salmon may serve to benefit local species. That being said, whether increased growth will translate to increased survival or population robustness is far less clear. Beyond the potential direct effects of growth on survival, increased growth may have life history effects for some species who migrate to sea during the summer given the greater options for foraging compared to freshwater.  If the amount of high quality food increased from salmon (e.g. salmon eggs) migrating species like Dolly Varden may alter their life history decisions to spend more of their life in freshwaters and may even forego going to the ocean all together (Bond et al. 2015).

A warming climate system and the increased suitability of freshwaters for colonizing salmon has spurred a curious biological race. Pacific salmon are expanding into the Arctic from their native North American range and from populations (particularly pink salmon) that were introduced to the Barents Sea area of Russia. At the same time, Atlantic salmon that are native to Eastern North America and Eurasia are also expanding north, leading to the potential for interactions between these species that have been geographically isolated for at least 15 million years. If one were to place a wager on the outcome of this biological race, who should be picked as a winner? To the extent that the past can predict the future, Atlantic salmon have a dismal track record of successfully colonizing habitats outside of their native range. Despite chronic releases of farmed raised Atlantic salmon in Patagonia and periodic escapes in British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest, no self sustaining populations of Atlantic salmon are currently known (Bisson 2006). That is not to say that evidence of successful reproduction by Atlantic salmon is absent as periodically the juveniles of invading parents are observed in streams of the Pacific Northwest (e.g. Volpe et al 2000). However, repeated sampling of these rivers have failed to find evidence that the population is established and generally the occurrence of juveniles disappears after a few seasons. In contrast, Pacific salmon have successfully colonized and established populations throughout the Southern Hemisphere in locales such as New Zealand (Quinn et al. 2001) and the Patagonia region of Chile and Argentina (Correa and Gross 2008). Given this track record of colonization, coupled with increased observations of Pacific salmon into the Beaufort Sea it seems that the upper hand is tipped in favor towards Oncorhynchus.

Pacific salmon are being met with a mixed reception by the indigenous traditional harvesters in the region. Through discussions with resident elder and long-time fishermen, Carothers et al. (in preparation, synthesizing Cotton 2012) relay variable opinions about perceptions regarding changes in salmon abundance in the Arctic, but consistent belief that harvests are on the rise. The perception of the benefits of increased salmon harvests likewise varied among local experts. Several fishermen spoke detrimentally about the numbers of pink salmon being caught that have “gotten to the point where there’s too many pinks to deal with” and another noted “we get more of the humpies (pink salmon), a lot of the humpies, and the last two years there’s been mostly humpies”. Given that pink salmon deteriorate in quality very quickly as they approach sexually maturity it is understandable that these increases in pink salmon harvests are not view favorably. In contrast, informants from both Utqiaġvik and Nuiqsut report to being considered lucky if they catch one or two Chinook salmon over the course of the season.

Table 1


Armstrong, J. B. & Bond, M. H. Phenotype flexibility in wild fish: Dolly Varden regulate assimilative capacity to capital

Bacon, J.J., T. R. Hepa, H.K. Brower, M. Pederson, T.P. Olemaun, J.C. George, and B.G. Corrigan.  (2009). Estimates of Subsistence Harvest for Villages on the North Slope of Alaska, 1994 – 2003. North Slope Borough, Department of Wildlife Management.  Barrow.

Bond, M. H., Miller, J. A. Quinn, T. P. Beyond dichotomous life histories in partially migrating populations: cessation of anadromy in a long-lived fish. Ecology 96, 1899–1910 (2015).

Bisson, P. A. Assessment of the risk of invasion of national forest streams in the Pacific Northwest by farmed Atlantic salmon. Gen. Tech. Rep. PNW-GTR-697. Portland, OR: US Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station. 28 p 697, (2006).

Brown, C. L., Braem, N. M., Kostick, M. L., Trainor, A., Slayton, L. J., Runfola, D. M., Simon, J. J. (2016). Harvests and Uses of Wild Resources in 4 Interior Alaska Communities and 3 Arctic Communities, 2014 (Technical Report). Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Brown, R. S., Hubert, W. A. & Daly, S. F. A primer on winter, ice, and fish: what fisheries biologists should know about winter ice processes and stream‐dwelling fish. Fisheries 36, 8–26 (2011).

Burr, J. (2006). Fishery Management Report for Sport Fisheries in the Arctic-Yukon Management Area, 2003-2005 (Fisheries Management Report No. 06-66) (p. 97). Anchorage, Alaska.

BurnSilver, S., Magdanz, J., Stotts, R., Berman, M., & Kofinas, G. (2016). Are Mixed Economies Persistent or Transitional? Evidence Using Social Networks from Arctic Alaska: Are Mixed Economies Persistent or Transitional? American Anthropologist, 118(1), 121–129.

Carothers, C. S. Cotton, and K.J. Moerlein.  2013. Subsistence use and knowledge of salmon in Barrow and Nuiqsut, Alaska.  University of Alaska Fairbanks Coastal Marine Institute: Fairbanks.

Craig, P. and L. Haldorson 1986. Pacific salmon in the North American Arctic. Arctic 39 (1): 2-7.

Cotton, S. 2012. Subsistence salmon fishing in Beaufort Sea communities.  Master’s Thesis. University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Correa, C. & Gross, M. R. Chinook salmon invade southern South America. Biological Invasions 10, 615–639 (2008).

Dolloff, C. A. Reeves, C. H. Microhabitat partitioning among stream-dwelling juvenile coho salmon, Oncorhynchus kisutch, and Dolly Varden, Salvelinus malma. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 47, 2297–2306 (1990).

Dunmall, K. M. et al. Pacific salmon in the Arctic: harbingers of change. Responses of Arctic marine ecosystems to climate change. Edited by FJ Mueter, DMS Dickson, HP Huntington, JR Irvine, EA Logerwell, SA MacLean, LT Quakenbush, and C. Rosa. doi 10, (2013).

Fall, James A. et al. 2018. Alaska Subsistence and Personal use Salmon Fisheries 2015 Annual Report.  Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Division of Subsistence Technical Paper No. 440. Anchorage.

George, C., L. Moulton, and M. Johnson. 2009. A field guide to the common fishes of the North Slope of Alaska. Version 1.5. Barrow, Alaska: Department of Wildlife Management, North Slope Borough.

Langdon, S. (2002). The Native people of Alaska: Traditional living in a northern land. Anchorage, AK: Greatland Graphics.

Mikow, E., Retherford, B., Godduhn, A., & Kostick, M.L.  2016. Exploring Subsistence Fisheries of Point Lay and Wainwright, Alaska. Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Division of Subsistence Technical Paper No. 419. Fairbanks.

Nielsen, J. L., Ruggerone, G. T. & Zimmerman, C. E. Adaptive strategies and life history characteristics in a warming climate: Salmon in the Arctic? Environmental Biology of Fishes 96, 1187–1226 (2013).

Parmesan, C. Ecological and evolutionary responses to recent climate change. Annu. Rev. Ecol. Evol. Syst. 37, 637–669 (2006).

Pess, G. R., Quinn, T. P., Gephard, S. R. & Saunders, R. Re-colonization of Atlantic and Pacific rivers by anadromous fishes: linkages between life history and the benefits of barrier removal. Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries 24, 881–900 (2014).

Quinn, T. P., Kinnison, M. T. & Unwin, M. J. Evolution of chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) populations in New Zealand: Pattern, rate, and process. in Microevolution Rate, Pattern, Process (eds. Hendry, A. P. & Kinnison, M. T.) 8, 493–513 (Springer Netherlands, 2001).

Reist, J. D. et al. An overview of effects of climate change on selected Arctic freshwater and anadromous fishes. AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment 35, 381–387 (2006).

Roos, J. F. Feeding Habits of the Dolly Varden, Salvelinus malma (Walbaum), at Chignik, Alaska. Transactions of the American Fisheries Society 88, 253–260 (1959).

Stephenson, S. A. A review of the occurrence of Pacific salmon (Oncorhynchus spp.) in the Canadian Western Arctic. Arctic 37–46 (2006).

Wenger, S. J. et al. Flow regime, temperature, and biotic interactions drive differential declines of trout species under climate change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108, 14175–14180 (2011).

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