Buyers consider Artic char a good substitute for farm-raised salmon because it has a more delicate texture and clean, mild flavor. Farmed Arctic char are sold fresh whole, and fresh or frozen as boneless fillets with the skin off or on, and canned. Farmed char has redder skin than wild char (more silver skinned) and cream-colored spots, however arctic char farmers add a synthetic pigment to the feed to give the fish a consistent pink-orange color. The high fat content in Arctic char makes it well-suited for dry-heat cooking such as broiling and smoking. Arctic char tends to be considered of very high quality and not widely available making it expensive.
Nearly all Artic Char available in the market is farm-raised and is rated a "Best Choice (green)" option. Nearly 90% comes from Iceland, and the remainder from the U.S. and Canada combined. There is a wild fishery in Canada that received a "Best Choice" recommendation in 2016, but at ~42t of production, is only about 1% of global production estimates and serves domestic markets.
Arctic char can be either anadromous – living in the ocean and spawning in freshwater streams – or populations can be landlocked and remain in fresh water their whole life. They closely resemble salmon in appearance, but are closer genetically to lake trout. Their color depends on the time of year and environmental conditions of their habitat, ranging from pale pink or silver to bright red. Farmed char have skin that is red with cream-colored spots whereas wild char has more silver-colored skin. Optimal temperature for aquaculture practices is found to be around 54 degrees Fahrenheit (12 degrees Celsius), as this supports high growth rates, good feed utilization, a reduced risk of contracting diseases, and low fungus growth compared to higher temperature studies. Arctic char can tolerate high population densities without negative effects on feed intake or growth. The species thrives best in cold, clear, oxygen-rich water, and the entire production cycle can take place in a solely freshwater environment, although some farms choose to give populations a saltwater period.
Anadromous stocks grow much faster than freshwater populations, and begin spawning between four and ten years old. Freshwater stocks begin spawning between two and five years old. Arctic char can weigh up to 20 pounds; however, marketed fish are typically between two and five pounds.
Spawning occurs from September to November. During this season, males develop a hooked jaw and turn bright red, whereas females remain silver. Most males defend territories and mate with several females. The females dig nests, known as redds, where they deposit 3,000 to 5,000 eggs at a time. Char do not die after spawning like salmon, and often spawn every third to fourth year. Adults remain in the river for one to three years before returning to sea and young char remain for five to seven months, although some may remain for one to nine years. The use of temperature and light manipulation has enabled modified aquaculture spawning. Arctic char remain in the hatchery until they weigh 5-100g, and reach market size 15 to 30 months after hatching.
Char diet varies with season. In the late spring and summer, they eat aquatic insects, salmon eggs, snails, and small crustaceans and fish. During the autumn and winter months, char feed on zooplankton, freshwater shrimp, and small fish. In many cases, during the winter, char live off of the fat they accumulate in the summer. Larger char, found in late summer or fall, have more oil, and hence more flavor.
Arctic char are native to northern streams, rivers, lakes, and subarctic coastal waters in North America, Asia, Europe, Iceland, and Greenland. They have the northernmost distribution of any freshwater fish. There are two subgroups within Arctic char – one, anadromous (or sea run) and the other, freshwater (or landlocked). Anadromous char move downstream to the sea in the spring where they will feed in coastal waters in the summer months. In the fall, with the onset of sea ice growth, anadromous char will return to freshwater to spawn. They will remain in freshwater throughout the winter months. Spawning occurs from September to October, over gravel beds. Males return to spawning grounds first and will establish and defend territories from rival males. Females dig gravel nests or “redds” in waters between nine and 19 feet (three to six meters) deep in which they will deposit their eggs. Eggs incubate under the ice for about six months – with the fry later emerging from their gravel nests in mid-July. Freshwater or landlocked char will spend their entire lives in freshwater. Arctic char can be found in waters up to 230 feet (70 meters) deep, but most are found in very shallow waters less than three feet (one meter) deep and in water temperatures from 39 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit (four to 16 degrees Celsius).
Science & Management
There has been relatively little research done on the life history or population trends of Arctic char in Alaska because of their isolated habitats (generally remote lakes). Some research, done by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, show low fishing pressure on stocks throughout the Alaskan range.
The Canadian Fisheries and Oceans Aquaculture R&D department, along with other academic and government researchers, is working to optimize growth performance and environmental conditions in Arctic char aquaculture. They have looked at the capability to withstand seawater among different family lines and genetic variations. A multi-disciplinary team of researchers is working to produce an all-female stock of Arctic char, because early maturation in males is considered to be a serious constraint to commercialization of certain Arctic char strains. Researchers are also studying Arctic char movements in cages to determine potential differences in feeding and swimming patterns.
The Coastal Zones Research Institutes Inc. was developed in 1996 by the New Brunswick Department of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Aquaculture, and established a research program at the New Brunswick Aquarium and Marine Centre. Their objectives are:
To examine the effect of triploidy on the performance of farmed Arctic char
To obtain high-pedigreed breeding lines
To develop a computer program to help match Arctic char breeders
To pigment the filet
To experiment with new cultivation technique
In 2014, Colorado State University’s (CSU) Warner College of Natural Resources led a project to improve the aquatic ecosystem production of Dillon Reservoir in Summit County, and enhance the lake as a fishing destination. An introduction of shrimp in 1970 to Denver’s largest single water supply source damaged the physical size of native trout and salmon populations. Colorado Parks and Wildlife began stocking Arctic char as a way to combat the shrimp invasion and boost the diversity of fishing opportunities. Dillon Reservoir is now the only public fishery in the lower 48 states (outside of Maine) where anglers can land Arctic char. CSU researchers have been monitoring the Arctic char population, health, and dietary data to produce future management recommendations.
Wild fisheries for Arctic char exist near Cambridge Bay and Cumberland Sound in Nunavut, Canada. Arctic char fisheries in the Nunavut Settlement Area are co-managed by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board, regional wildlife organizations, and hunter and trapper organizations in accordance with the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement, the Fisheries Act, and in some communities, by the bylaws of local hunter and trapper organizations. Among management measures for Arctic char in Nunavut are: minimum gillnet mesh sizes, license controls, river-specific quotas and total harvest limits, and community-based monitoring. The fishery is well managed, but management is considered to be complex due to the widespread distribution and biological nature of Arctic char as well as a lack of recorded harvesting data. Currently, only local Inuit community members are allowed to participate in the fishery.
The Department of Fisheries and Ocean (DFO) and various provincial regulatory bodies manage Arctic char aquaculture in Canada. These organizations are responsible for the growth and siting of the aquaculture industry throughout Canada. In New Brunswick, Arctic char aquaculture is governed by the Environmental Management Program for Land Based Finfish Aquaculture in New Brunswick – which is responsible for developing best management practices, monitoring/reporting requirements, and discharge thresholds – as well as the Department of Environmental and Local Government Certificate of Approval to Operate – which includes conditions regarding number of fish/biomass that can be raised, rate of water withdrawal, and acceptable chemical discharge compositions. In the Yukon Territory, the Yukon Water Board is responsible for regulations regarding water use and discharge.
Iceland is the world’s large producer of farmed Arctic char and multiple federal, regional and community authorities are charged with the management of aquaculture in Iceland. Any freshwater aquaculture facility that produces more than 20 metric tons of fish a year is required to have both an environmental and operational license issued by the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture – whereas any farm that produces less than 20 metric tons is managed by local health and environmental community committees. These licenses include specific measures regarding pollutant, chemical, and solid discharges along with other local and regional environmental issues. Licenses also include requirements for facility monitoring and compliance testing.
Both federal and state regulations govern land-based aquaculture in the US. All permit applications are assessed on a case-by-case basis and the overall process is designed to protect the surrounding ecosystems. Numerous federal agencies provide some degree of oversight to aquaculture facilities operating in the US. These include:
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) – which is responsible for coordinating national aquaculture policy and providing industry with research, information, and extension services;
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – which regulates waste discharge from aquaculture facilities;
The Fisheries and Wildlife Service (FWS) – which regulates the introduction and transport of fish; and,
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) – the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine is responsible for approving and monitoring the use of drugs and medicated feeds used in the aquaculture industry.
Conservation Criteria - Wild
Conservation Criteria - Farmed
Arctic char farming facilities exist in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Austria and Italy but the majority of the fish comes from Iceland, Canada, and the United States. In Iceland, industry and production statistics come from government or independently verifiable sources but there are little data in English about ecosystem and farm effluent discharge, according to a recent Seafood Watch report. In the United States and Canada, where the industry is smaller, production and industry statistics are lacking. Seafood Watch gave the U.S., Canada, and Iceland moderate ratings overall for data availability.
Operations are primarily land-based and either use recirculating tank systems that treat and reuse wastewater or flow-through systems. With recirculating tank systems, the water quality is closely controlled. There have been increased nutrients found near some flow-through systems discharging freshwater effluent into coastal waterways but the overall concern over effluent impact is low, according to a recent Seafood Watch report.
Land-based Arctic char farming generally takes place in closed, recirculating systems that treat their water so there is a low risk of pollution and negative effects on native habitats. In Iceland, flow-through farms send freshwater effluent into coastal areas that have high currents, preventing waste from accumulating, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. In Sweden, Arctic char operations are intentionally located in freshwater reservoirs that are depleted and unproductive because the discharges increase the amount of nutrients in the water, providing a beneficial effect. A Seafood Watch report found that Arctic char aquaculture in Iceland, Canada, and the United States has a minimal impact on habitats there.
Since Arctic char is a carnivorous fish, it has a high dietary protein requirement. Some farmers feed Arctic char fish meal and fish oil from wild-caught fish, which may put pressure on those populations. Feed formulations are often proprietary, making them difficult for outside scientists to assess, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. A recent Seafood Watch report gave Arctic char farming in Iceland, Canada, and the United States a moderate score for feed because it relies on crops that humans eat.
Source of Stock
All Arctic char aquaculture stock is produced in hatcheries from captive broodstock, making the industry independent from wild stocks for sourcing, the Monterey Bay Aquarium reported.
Disease, Pathogen and Parasite Interaction
Arctic char has a complex genetic makeup that makes it challenging for farmers to selectively breed char with favorable characteristics. However, the fish are suited to growing in smaller, densely stocked habitats. Disease transmission risk is very low in Arctic char aquaculture due to careful management. The species has a low need for chemical use or treatments over multiple production cycles, according to a Seafood Watch report.
Escapes and Introduced Species
In the United States and Canada, Arctic char farms employ partial recirculation and water treatment technology, screens, and secondary capture devices to prevent fish from escaping, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Any that do escape are unlikely to survive, making the risk to wild populations quite low. While some farms in Norway and Sweden use net pens, Swedish facilities are set up in otherwise unproductive reservoirs. In Norway strict measures are in place to limit escapes. Icelandic flow-through systems have a moderate risk of escape into the open ocean, but double security barriers are used as a preventive measure. While strict regulations are in place for live animals, Seafood Watch found there is a small potential for unintentionally introduced species to escape.