2,000 miles from home… in Greenland

August 25, 2017

Over 2,000  miles (3,200 km) away from my home in Maine, I find myself in a foreign yet beautiful landscape and a very different culture working with Atlantic salmon. I’m in Qaqortoq, Greenland participating in an international sampling program organized under the auspice of the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization (NASCO) to collect valuable information on West Greenland’s harvest of Atlantic salmon. It took a bit to get here, and the final leg consisted of a two-hour ride through 6+ foot seas on what may have been a slightly undersized vessel for the conditions. One passenger was actually jostled from her seat to the floor when we came down one of the larger waves. The captain did well though, avoiding the larger icebergs and simply plowing through the smaller ones.

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Village of Qaqortoq as viewed from the local market. Photo by Graham Goulette, NOAA/NEFSC.

From August through October each year, Greenlandic fishermen harvest Atlantic salmon off their coast as part of an internal use only commercial fishery. To characterize the harvest and collect information needed for international stock assessment efforts conducted by the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES), NASCO helps establish a sampling program which the NEFSC organizes. In addition to myself, there are representatives in other Greenlandic communities from Canada, England, Ireland, and Scotland who are sampling salmon to determine their biological characteristics, age, country of origin, and also for the presence of tags to gain information on salmon migration timing and presence.  We are also collecting a host of other data and samples to help collaborating researchers learn more about other aspects of the salmon marine life as well as better understand the threats they face at sea.

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Fjord and mountain views from Qaqortoq. Photo by Graham Goulette, NOAA/NEFSC.

Abundant prey in the Labrador Sea off the west coast of Greenland attracts Atlantic salmon from North America, Iceland, and Southern Europe. Here, the ~ 8 inch juvenile salmon smolts that left their home rivers over a year ago find the rich food sources they need to nourish their bodies and grow to 30+ inches before migrating back to their natal rivers to spawn. In light of poor returns from the marine environment in recent decades, researchers like me are trying to garner as much information as we can to assist in determining why there aren’t more salmon coming back.

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A catch of Atlantic Salmon from a local fisherman. Notice the Arctic Char (spotted caudal or tail fin) laid on top. Photo by Graham Goulette, NOAA/NEFSC.

On my first day here I headed to the local market in the afternoon but it had already closed. There were a few people hanging around and I inquired about salmon. A lady who spoke a small amount of English pointed me towards a fisherman who in turn asked if “I liked to pay.” I explained I didn’t want to purchase any salmon, but that I wanted to sample them for the program. Well, he turned his back to me and walked away. However, over the next few days he was the first one to bring salmon into the market each day and allowed me to sample them (for free).

My typical day begins at the local market greeting fisherman as they come to shore with their morning’s catch (generally from gill net sets) and asking if I may sample their landings. Communication is a huge barrier, but with a few gestures and smiles the benevolent fishermen allow me to collect the information I need. Additionally, the market manager speaks English and has been an enormous benefit in assisting me with communicating with the fishermen. I only know how to say “thank you” in Greenlandic but a few more phrases would be of assistance. For example, one morning on the way to the local market I headed down a large stretch of narrow steps, probably the equivalent of 6 stories, and found myself  in the middle a group of 8 – 10 year old Greenlandic and Danish children who blocked my path. I said “excuse me” and one of them blurted out a phrase I took to mean as “huh?” The next few moments were pretty tense as the group of youths just stared at me. I could sense them sizing me up, but in the end they each stuck out a hand for me to shake and let me pass – close call!

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A nice landing of Atlantic Cod from a local fisherman. Photo by Graham Goulette, NOAA/NEFSC.

Often there is an array of species brought to market, ranging from the more abundant Atlantic cod, Atlantic salmon, Atlantic wolffish, redfish, and Arctic char. With the salmon the sampling can be fast and furious as I don’t want to squander a fisherman’s opportunity to sell his catch. Over the first two days of sampling I have seen and sampled 31 salmon. Three have had external tags. One tag indicated the fish came from Canada, while the other two had visual implant elastomer (VIE) tags.  There is a chance that maybe one of these fish actually came from the US and that I may have handled one of these fish a couple years earlier when they were only ~ 8 inches long and just heading out to sea.

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Barely visible, but to the upper left of the eye is a green visual implant elastomer tag. Photo by Graham Goulette, NOAA/NEFSC.

Sometimes at the end of the day I purchase something from the market to have for dinner. The other day I went to the grocery store to pick up a bottle of wine to pair with my meal. Much to my dismay there was a solid steel curtain enclosing the entire beer and wine section. I checked the time – 6:12 PM. The steel curtain drops at 6 PM sharp. Oh well, live and learn!

I will be here over the next two weeks so I hope to be able to collect much more information for the sampling program. Of course the weather may dictate how often the fishermen set or tend their gear, but I’m hoping the wind is fair and waters are calm.

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Curious snow bunting gawking in my direction. Photo by Graham Goulette, NOAA/NEFSC.

Graham Goulette
Atlantic Salmon Ecosystems Research Team (ASERT)
Maine Field Station, Orono`

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