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Arctic Char
Salvelinus alpinus

Arctic Char

©B.Guild/Charting Nature, www.chartingnature.com

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COMMON NAMES

  • Alpine Char
  • Arctic Char
  • Char
  • Charr
  • Hudson Bay salmon
  • Salt-water trout
  • Sea trout

HIGHLIGHTS

  • Arctic char is the most northerly freshwater fish sold (500 miles south of the North Pole)
  • Wild char is found in Arctic Circle nations (Canada, Iceland, Greenland, Russia and U.S.)
  • Two-thirds of the world’s Arctic char supply is farmed
  • The top farmed producers are Canada and Iceland

THE PERFECT SUBSTITUTE

Most Arctic char is sold at the foodservice level, where chefs often choose it as a better environmental choice than similar-tasting farmed salmon. The taste of Arctic char is generally considered somewhat milder than either king or Atlantic (farmed) salmon, and its high fat content makes it suitable for dry heat cooking methods such as broiling and grilling. It also makes an excellent smoked product.

THE HIGH-END ALTERNATIVE

Research into the farming of Arctic char began in the 1970s. As the Canadian Arctic char industry grew, the fish became an alternative to rainbow trout and appealed to unique high-end consumer markets. With a high fat content, Arctic char handles well on the grill or under the broiler; it is also a great substitute for salmon when looking for a smoked fish.

Arctic char is a member of the Salmonid family. It resembles a salmon in appearance but is genetically more closely linked to trout. While some populations of Arctic char migrate to the ocean and return to freshwater to spawn, others spend their entire life in freshwater. Unlike Pacific salmon, Arctic char do not die after spawning.

In the wild, these fish enter saltwater in the spring and spend the summer gorging themselves on fish like capelin and Arctic cod. In the fall, they return to freshwater lakes and rivers, weighing 30 to 50 percent more than when they left. In many cases, char does not feed during winter months; it lives off the fat accumulated the previous summer.

Although Arctic char has been farmed for well over a decade and farmed product represents the majority of the U.S. market for char, production remains quite small. Arctic char is currently farmed in Canada, Iceland, Norway and the U.S., with the majority of U.S. supply originating in Canada and Iceland. Farmers have had considerable difficulty selecting char that consistently perform well because of its complex genetic makeup, which is one reason supply of Arctic char remains relatively limited.

CONSERVATION NOTES

Land-based, closed-cycle systems used to farm Artic char are considered to be among the most environmentally responsible fish farming designs, as they do not significantly pollute surrounding waters or affect nearby wild populations through escape or disease transmission.

Similar to the feed of other farmed carnivorous fish, farmed Arctic char feed contains fish meal, fish oil, and varying levels of a synthetic version of natural carotenoid pigments (used to give the flesh a pinkish hue). Continued use of wild fish for feed is unsustainable; however, diets using a larger proportion of grain are being developed.

In northern Canada, local Inuits of Nunavut participate in a closely monitored commercial Arctic char fishery with only 100 MT (220,000 pounds) of commercial production. Commercial catches only take place after the community’s food requirements have been met, and fishermen use passive gear such as shore-set surface gill nets, fish weirs and traps.

IN SEASON

  • Farmed: Available year-round, but sometimes difficult to find in the market
  • Wild: Fall (limited to 1-2 months)

PRODUCT FORM

FRESH (uncommon):

  • Whole
  • Dressed (head-on)
  • Fillets

FROZEN:

  • Whole
  • Dressed (head-on)
  • Fillets

BUYING TIPS

  • Arctic char is expensive and is not available from many seafood distributors.
  • Quality is relatively consistent for farmed char.
  • Flesh color (wild and farmed) varies from a pale orange-pink to a bright red, depending on the region or, in the case of farmed fish, the amount of pigment in feed.
  • Arctic char is an ocean-friendly substitute for farmed Atlantic salmon.

RULES FOR WILD CHAR:

  • Char caught in late summer or fall is fattier and more flavorful.
  • As a rule, larger char have more oil and, hence, more flavor.
  • Processing in remote coastal areas is challenging, and quality can be inconsistent.

DISTINGUISHING BETWEEN WILD AND FARMED:

  • Farmed char has redder skin with cream-colored spots
  • Wild char has more silver-colored skin