Species Habitat

Habitat & Species

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Water Quality

Aquatic habitat and species within the Peel sub-basin are undergoing moderate change. This assessment is based on observations of changes in the abundance and health condition of some fish and furbearer species as reported by Indigenous communities, as limited scientific data was found for Arctic fish stocks. Traditional harvesters have observed fish species that were formerly not present in the Peel sub-basin, along with an increase in pike (Esox lucius) populations. Stocks of some species are in decline, including some preferred salmonid species, although traditional harvesters generally describe healthy fish populations in the Peel sub-basin. Reports of less healthy fish with “softer” flesh and abnormalities have been made in recent years. In some areas, a rise in otter (Lutra canadensis) and beaver (Castor canadensis) populations alongside a significant decline in muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) populations has been documented, attributed in part to declines in habitat quality for muskrats and increasing competition between furbearer species. Indigenous Knowledge and scientific observations of changes in wetland cover or riparian forests in the sub-basin were not found.

The following table summarizes the availability of information for each Habitat and Species indicator.

Signs and Signals

Indigenous Knowledge Information and Data

Indigenous Knowledge Availability in Public Sources1

Information and Data

Science Data Availability2


Oral histories and local observations of fish abundance, timing and distribution, species diversity and fish health condition.

Local observations about changes in timing of local fishing activity and yield.

Many observations from several locations

Fish (including salmon, suckers, pickerels, burbot) abundance, timing and distribution, species diversity and fish health condition.

Limited data on fish stocks.


Oral histories and stories of wetland and forest (and other habitat / land use)

Local observations and oral histories of number, location and total area of wetlands

Some observations from few locations.

Number, location and total area of wetlands. Species diversity in wetlands where available.

Limited information on wetland cover and no information on change over time.

Scientific information on muskrat and beaver populations was not gathered for this report.

Riparian Forests

Local observations and oral histories of riparian forests

No information found.

Number, location, total area of riparian forests areas. Species diversity of riparian forests where available.

No data found.

1 Qualifiers for the availability of local and Indigenous Knowledge observations in publicly available sources: Limited = 1-2 observations; Some = 3-4 observations; Many = 5 or more observations
2 Qualifiers for the availability of science data in publicly available sources: Low = Individual studies or locations; Many = Network of monitoring stations across the basin


Changes in fish populations and health condition have been observed by Indigenous communities in the Peel sub-basin.

In the lower Peel watershed, the Gwich’in have reported the presence of new fish species including dog (chum; Oncorhynchus keta) and chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) and pickerel (Sander vitreus).[47] Fewer salmon and trout were caught in recent years by members of Nacho Nyak Dun First Nation and an increase in the abundance of pike (Esox lucius) was noted.[48]

Dog (chum) salmon is one of the newly-observed fish species in the lower Peel watershed. Image source: Alaska Region U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via Flickr Creative Commons (copyright-free).

Observations of declines in some fish stocks have been recorded, although traditional harvesters have generally described plentiful fish populations in the lower Peel watershed.[49] In one study, Gwich’in fishers recounted that they see fewer fish overall than in the past, however, this sentiment was not shared by all study participants.[50] Fish runs are increasingly difficult for the Gwich’in to predict, and over the last 5 to 10 years there is growing uncertainty about when to catch certain fish species.[51] Salmon fishing by members of Nacho Nyak Dun First Nation has decreased in recent years in response to observed declines in preferred salmonid species[52] A preliminary scientific assessment of fisheries in the Peel River watershed in 2006 documented 24 fish species, including highly valued sport and subsistence fish, such as Dolly Varden char (Salvelinus malma), chum salmon (Oncorhynchus keta), lake trout (Salvelinus namaycush), Arctic grayling (Thymallus arcticus) and various types of whitefish. This report concluded that little development of any kind has impacted the Peel River watershed and, from a fish habitat perspective, it can therefore be considered nearly “pristine”.[53]

Over the last several years, perceptions of the salmon declining in the Stewart River has been a major issue leading to a ban on salmon harvest in 2014-15,

Parlee and Maloney, 2017

Changes in fish health condition have been observed by the Gwich’in in the Mackenzie and Peel Rivers, including white spots on fish livers, abnormal growths and tumours, and more scars and scabs on fish skin. Fish with softer skin are commonly observed, which some Gwich’in fishers attribute to warmer water temperatures.[54] Members of Nacho Nyak Dun First Nation harvested fish in poor health condition and fish with a mushier texture in recent years.[55]

There were a number of concerns about the health of fish that were being caught in both the Mackenzie and Peel Rivers,

Parlee and Maloney, 2017

The Dolly Varden (Salvelinus malma) in the Peel River and its tributaries is listed as a Canadian “species of special concern”. This designation means that the species may become threatened or endangered because of a combination of biological characteristics and identified threats. In this case these are its very limited area of occupancy and thus high susceptibility to overexploitation and habitat impacts (e.g., climate change). [56] Dolly Varden populations declined from 1972 to 1998 in Big Fish River, a western tributary to the Mackenzie Delta. A high variability with a general decline in population were observed in the Rat River, a tributary of the Husky Channel in the Mackenzie Delta, from 1995 to 2008. In the latter, occasional overharvest and loss of spawning and overwintering habitat through desiccation in unusually warm, dry years were cited as possible reasons for the population decline.[57] The Gwich’in identified declines in Rat River Dolly Varden Char stocks in the 1980s and a population crash in 2004 which were primarily attributed to overharvesting and a former practice of setting nets across critical migration waterways.[58]

Dolly Varden is a protected species that has a limited number of locations that are key for spawning and overwintering. Populations have declined over the past few decades in the Peel River sub-basin. Image source: Alaska Region U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via Flickr Creative Commons (copyright-free).

Wetlands & Riparian Forests

There is minimal wetland cover in the Peel sub-basin, and information on changes over time in wetlands in the Peel sub-basin is also limited. Indigenous communities have observed changes in wetland-dependent wildlife populations.

The Gwich’in have observed increases in the range and population size of otters and beavers.[59] In one study, Gwich’in and Inuvialuit trappers reported an increase in the populations of otter and beavers in the last 20 to 30 years in the lower Peel watershed. Participants in the study viewed the increasing populations of otter and beaver as a negative change as their meat is less desirable than other furbearers, particularly muskrat.[60]

A significant decline in muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) abundance relative to population levels in the 1960s and 1980s has been reported by several Gwich’in communities. In the last 5 to 10 years, Gwich’in trappers from Fort McPherson and Aklavik witnessed the disappearance of muskrat in the upper Mackenzie River Delta. Trappers attribute the reduced muskrat populations to declines in habitat quality, competition with other wildlife such as otters (Lutra canadensis) and beavers (Castor canadensis), and hydrologic changes that are unfavourable for muskrats, such as lower water levels and changing flood patterns.[61]

Muskrats depend on open water habitats with shallow water conditions. Image source: CheepShot via Flickr Creative Commons (copyright-free).

Participants from Fort McPherson and Aklavik who trapped in the upper Delta between these two communities (n = 11) described how muskrats have largely disappeared from this area in the last 5-10 years,

Turner et al., 2018

The overall coverage of wetlands in the Peel sub-basin is likely small (estimated 1%, see Land Cover statistics, supported by an independent estimate of 0.8%[62]). Many wetlands on the Peel Plateau are “perched” near rivers carved in the plateau, providing valuable staging and stop-over sites for the waterfowl migratory pathway for birds traveling east or west between the Yukon and Mackenzie river basins. Examples of such wetlands are Turner Lakes, Jackfish Lakes, Tabor Lakes, and Chappie Lakes.[63] A Canadian Wetland inventory completed recently indicates more wetland land cover than that estimated by land cover mapping cited above, but is still under development and requires field-validation.


Wetland Mapping for Peel Sub-basin as part of a Canadian Wetland Inventory that still requires validation[105]

Documented sources of information on the number, location and total area of riparian forest was not found.
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