It was 1960 and Canada’s fisheries managers had a problem: No one fully knew what kinds of fish were in our oceans, or where they lived.
Not understanding what fish we have can be a national problem, as the crash of the Atlantic cod fishery later proved.
So the Fisheries Research Board of Canada began gathering information, and soon there were descriptions and maps for the Atlantic fish, Pacific fish and freshwater fish — but still nothing for the Arctic Ocean. The problem stayed that way for decades.
“The problem in this case was twofold,” recalled James Reist, a veteran Fisheries and Oceans researcher. “The specimens weren’t there, basic information wasn’t there, and then on top of that was the difficulty of working in the north, and the expense.”
Some Arctic fish were well known in one sense — everyone knows what an Arctic char looks like — but their distribution had to be mapped out. Other species were real mysteries, such as the deep-sea creatures of which only one or two specimens have ever been found.
The task fell in the end to Ottawa’s Don McAllister, the young curator of fishes (he was still in his 20s) at what is now the Canadian Museum of Nature, and an Arctic specialist.
“Don McAllister began the effort in about 1960 or so,” Reist said.
This week, the result is finally in print: Marine Fishes of Arctic Canada has more than 600 pages of every known fish in our north, from halibut to sculpins to the massive Greenland shark.
The book is edited by Reist and Brian Coad, a long-time researcher at the nature museum, with contributions from many sources, including Noel Alfonso and Claude Renaud of the museum. It’s dedicated to McAllister, who died in 2001.
There’s a book launch with free admission at the museum Tuesday at 7 p.m.
The book production began in the early 1990s but they took the slow road in order to get pinpoint accuracy in the many maps.
“Rather than plot generalized distributions, sort of where we think the fish should be, we undertook a massive effort … to go through all of the available information,” Reist said. This detective work led through formal research studies, but also through old typed reports from fisheries managers and consultants.
Reist has occupied a lot of his career on Arctic fish that spend summer at sea but move inland to spend the winter and spawn in rivers. These include the different kinds of char.
He still marvels at their ability to adapt to harsh and changing conditions: “Low temperatures for much of the year, sea ice and ice in freshwater, highly variable environmental conditions,” he said, and water that doesn’t have a lot of food in it.
He also noted the weird fish — especially in the Davis Strait and Baffin Bay — from several thousand metres deep, with huge jaws, enormous bellies and not a lot else.
“They are adapted so that anything they encounter, they eat. Anybody they meet in the deep water, they will try to consume.”