An Update on the Greenland Salmon Conservation Agreement and satellite tracking in the Arctic

ASF in Greenland


Sep 27, 2019
ASF V.P. of Research Jonathan Carr prepares to fit an salmon with an external satellite tag near the south Greenland community of Qaqortoq. Photo Lars Hansen

Every year Atlantic salmon from more than 2,000 rivers in North America and Europe migrate to the west coast of Greenland, chasing prey like capelin, squid, and shrimp. The country is also home to the last commercial fishery for North American Atlantic salmon, one that presents a real threat to populations on the brink.

That’s why ASF is engaged on the ground in Greenland, working with fishermen to develop alternatives and playing a lead role in a five-year research project examining how salmon movement and survival is influenced by changing ocean conditions. 
There are no exports of wild Atlantic salmon from Greenland, but professional license holders can sell fish in local markets like these. Fishermen with a private license primarily take salmon for food.

The Greenland Salmon Conservation Agreement – Take two

ASF was informed on Wednesday, September 25th, the Government of Greenland closed the 2019 Atlantic salmon fishery, more than a month ahead of the usual October 31st stop date. The decision was made with 16.6 metric tons of catch reported, leaving a buffer for late reports without exceeding the 20 metric ton target laid out in the 12-year Greenland Salmon Conservation Agreement. It appears problems that led to an overharvest in 2018 have been corrected.

Scientists estimate that there are 300 Atlantic salmon per metric ton at Greenland. With 40 metric tons taken last year, if the 2019 harvest comes in at 20 metric tons, 6,000 additional, large salmon will get the chance to return to home rivers and spawn next year.

2018 - A bump in the road

In May of 2018, ASF and our Icelandic partners, the North Atlantic Salmon Fund, signed a 12-year agreement with KNAPK, the union that represents professional hunters and fishermen in Greenland. The purpose is to conserve salmon by offering grants to fishermen for the development of alternative sustainable fisheries, eco-tourism initiatives, marine research and education.

The agreement also includes language on mandatory licensing and reporting for all salmon fishermen, whether union members or not. This requirement was brought into force prior to the 2018 season thanks to an executive order from the Greenland government. 
The view from a hill overlooking the community of Sisimiut in western Greenland. Photo Graham Chafe/ASF
Unfortunately, and perhaps understandably, the first year of the agreement didn’t go as planned. The fishery was allowed to stay open even after the 20 metric tonne target was reached.

According to a report from the Greenland government there were two issues: catch reports submitted to municipal offices in small communities were not forwarded to authorities in Nuuk, and some of the reports collected in the capital were not properly classified. As catch numbers climbed, officials had no idea.

The signing of the new Greenland Salmon Conservation Agreement on 24 May, 2018 was a major step in reducing the harvest of large salmon on their ocean feeding grounds. From left are ASF President Bill Taylor, KNAPK Chair Henrik Sandgreen, Fridleifur Gudmundsson and Elvar Fridriksson of the North Atlantic Salmon Fund.
A strengthened agreement

Credit for the improved management of the Greenland Atlantic salmon fishery in 2019 deserves to be shared. Officials in the Ministry of Fisheries, Hunting, and Agriculture got engaged after the 2018 season and the partners in the Greenland Salmon Conservation Agreement negotiated new measures to strengthen monitoring and reporting.

For example, Greenland Fishery License Control Authority overhauled their reporting system to prevent mis-classification. Municipal officials in all the communities where people fish salmon were contacted and given new instructions on submitting reports, and a public awareness campaign about reporting requirements was launched on radio, web, and TV.
Malu Ravn was hired by KNAPK to coordinate the Greenland Salmon Conservation Agreement in 2019 and help verify catch reporting from communities. Photo Jonathan Carr/ASF

KNAPK and ASF conducted a series of community visits to further explain reporting requirements and inform fishermen of available grants. The union also allocated funds from the agreement to hire a person dedicated to salmon. Her name is Malu Ravn and she has spent the past six weeks canvassing local union reps by phone, collecting information about the level of fishing activity along the coast.

Catch numbers are still being finalized, but it’s fair to say the Greenland Salmon Conservation Agreement lived up to its name in 2019, with ten more years still to come.

Tagging and Tracking

Reducing human impacts on vulnerable salmon populations is one part of ASF’s work in Greenland, learning where salmon move during their stay in Arctic waters is another. The time spent off Greenland and the ensuing homeward journey are the least understood legs of Atlantic salmon migration.

In partnership with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources, and KNAPK, year two of a five year tracking study at Greenland is underway. The goal is to map the winter and fall movements of wild Atlantic salmon, including their homeward journey next spring. The data will also be analyzed to look at the influence of oceanographic features, like temperature and prey distribution, on salmon movement and mortality.

Ocean survival rates for wild Atlantic salmon are hovering between one and three per cent in most areas, a big drop from seven to 10 per cent survival in the early 1990s. Understanding how long salmon forage at Greenland, how often they're preyed upon, and plotting precise migration routes will help us understand what’s driving marine mortality, potentially leading to new conservation strategies.

How it works

The goal this year is to fit 50 adult salmon with pop-off satellite tags. Every two minutes a computer on-board the small buoy-like device captures information on position, temperature, depth, and light intensity. The tags in this study are programmed to pop off on May 1st.

On that day, an electrical current inside the tag will be triggered, rapidly corroding the attaching wire. Once free, the tag floats to the surface, connects with a passing satellite, and sends information back to researchers. Small tissue samples are also being collected from the captured fish to determine the its region of origin.
In this September 2019 picture, ASF V.P. of Research Jonathan Carr prepares an Atlantic salmon for release near Qaqortoq, Greenland. Photo Lars Hansen
Right now, ASF has two people on the ground. Jonathan Carr, ASF’s V.P. of Research is in Qaqortoq and Senior Biologist Graham Chafe is in Sisimiut.

After trying traps and nets in 2018, it was determined that the best way to catch, tag, and release adult salmon in Greenland is with rod and reel. Using downriggers and spoons, the ASF team has hired guides with local knowledge and equipment.

The salmon tagged so far have been picked-up between from 10 to 40 metres deep (30-130 feet) in the water column where they are actively feeding and quick to chase a lure.

However, finding the fish has been tricky. Only a handful have been tagged so far, but the consensus among Greenlanders is that fishing will improve through October. As the ASF team prepares to leave, scientists from NOAA and DFO will arrive, a staggered strategy to make sure all the tags get deployed.

This work has the potential to change our understanding of the daily life and movement of wild Atlantic salmon at sea. For example, in an earlier study using satellite tags on post-spawn salmon leaving the Miramichi River in New Brunswick, ASF researchers documented deep-dives up to 900 metres (3,000 feet), something never witnessed before.

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