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owl, muskox, wolf, butterflyArctic National Wildlife Refuge
Refuge Information | Wildlife | Habitat | People
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Why we archived the ANWR website at


Topics on this page:
Arctic Grayling
Dolly Varden
Arctic Cisco

Arctic Grayling

Always on the lookout for a tasty insect morsel, Arctic grayling are popular with anglers for their willingness to take a lure. This characteristic, however, is more than a special gift from nature. It is one of the grayling's unique adaptations to arctic Alaska.

arctic graylingSporting an elegant sail-like dorsal fin, Arctic grayling are freshwater cousins of the trout. During the short summer season, they feast on huge numbers of drifting aquatic insects. They prefer to feed in clear flowing rivers so they can see their prey. Grayling use silty glacial rivers as summer migration corridors and for overwintering.

Summer feeding frenzies prepare grayling for the frozen, foodless months of winter. By fall, the fish have large stores of fat, which will provide the energy they need to survive eight months under the ice. Mature grayling also begin producing eggs and sperm in anticipation of spawning the following June.

Many rivers on the Arctic Refuge coastal plain are less than waist deep, and freeze to the bottom each winter. Grayling are found only in the few river systems with deep pools that remain unfrozen under six feet of ice. The grayling survive here because they tolerate the low levels of dissolved oxygen lethal to many other fish.

In late May or June, when spring meltoff opens the rivers, mature grayling swim upstream to their traditional spawning areas. After spawning, they continue upstream to their summer feeding grounds. There they remain until fall, when they return to the overwintering pools.

The grayling eggs remain in the gravel stream beds for three weeks, releasing their half-inch fish by early July. Poor swimmers, these young fish usually stay in the waters near their spawning areas. Biologists don't know where the juveniles overwinter.

The Refuge's short summers and long winters slow grayling growth. On the coastal plain, grayling don't reach their spawning length of 11 inches for six or seven years, although they can exceed 16 inches and live more than 12 years.

An angler's dream, a caddis fly's nightmare: grayling are well adapted to survive in the harsh arctic environment. They depend on the clean gravel and water supplies of the Arctic Refuge, and are a valuable component of its diverse natural resources.

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Dolly Varden

dolly vardenBright green, with red spots and a flaming red belly; the Dolly Varden gets attention. Known until recently as the Arctic char, the Dolly Varden is a renowned sport fish on rivers and lagoons of the Arctic Refuge.

Dolly Varden live in north-flowing Refuge rivers that have year-round springs. The fish use the springs to spawn and spend the winter. Many Dolly Varden are anadromous, wintering in the rivers and summering in coastal marine waters. Others never visit the sea, spending their entire lives in the rivers of their birth.

In late summer and fall, Dolly Varden deposit their eggs in nests scraped into the gravel. The nests are located just downstream from springs, where fresh, cold water percolates up through the river gravel. The eggs mature slowly, hatching into fry in March. These tiny fish remain hidden in the gravel, absorbing nutrients from their yolk sacs, until they emerge in late May. The young fish feed on insects in the water.

Anadromous Dolly Varden may migrate to the sea as early as their second year, but most wait until they are three or four. Fish from the Refuge disperse into nearshore waters west of the Refuge and east into Canada, where they mix with Dolly Varden from other river drainages. They return to freshwater springs each fall.

Dolly Varden in the Refuge usually spawn by age eight, but only half survive to spawn a second time. Those who do may wait two years, while they rebuild the energy reserves they need.

Although they can live 16 years or more, Dolly Varden over 10 are uncommon in the Refuge. The anadromous fish grow faster and larger than their freshwater comrades. For example, one non-migratory fish measured 12.5 inches, while anadromous fish of the same age and from the same drainage measured 18 and 20 inches. An exceptional Dolly Varden caught in Beaufort lagoon was 32 inches long and weighed 10.6 pounds.

Sparkling like brilliant gems in pristine waters, Dolly Varden provide recreational enjoyment to Refuge visitors, and nourishment to local residents. The fish depend on the freshwater springs and nearby marine waters of the Arctic Refuge, and are an integral part of its spectacular natural resources.

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Arctic Cisco

arctic ciscoIt is not a game fish, has an obscure name, can't easily be seen, and has no great claim to fame. Yet the Arctic cisco plays a big role in the arctic. It is a critical link in the marine food chain, provides food for local residents, and brings money to commercial fishermen.

Cousin to Interior Alaska's sheefish, Arctic cisco feed and migrate in summer through the nutrient rich waters of the Arctic Refuge coast. These metallic silver fish eat marine invertebrates, and are themselves an important food source for larger fish and marine mammals. Arctic cisco can reach 20 inches and weigh up to two pounds.

Mature Arctic cisco begin spawning at age eight or nine, continuing beyond 13 years of age. They lay their eggs in Canada's Mackenzie River. After hatching, the finger-length juveniles migrate west along the Refuge coast. Prevailing easterly winds help "push" the young fish to the Sagavanirktok River west of the Refuge, more than 200 miles from where they began. Juveniles overwinter in this river for a few years until they reach the sub-adult stage. They then travel another 100 miles west to overwinter in the Colville River. When they mature, Arctic cisco return each year to the Mackenzie River to spawn and overwinter.

Although fish of different ages overwinter in separate river drainages east and west of the refuge, in summer Arctic cisco of every age are found in abundance in the nearshore waters of the Refuge coast.

A food resource for Kaktovik Natives, Arctic cisco are netted or seined from August through early September. The fish brings more to the village than sustenance, however. The Inupiaq name for Kaktovik ("Qaaktugvik") means seining place. The word is a constant reminder of the cisco ("Qaaktag"), and the villager's seining efforts ("Qaaktug"), to catch them.

Sub-adult Arctic cisco from the Colville River are an important commercial resource. Overwintering fish taken from there are sold in Barrow, Anchorage, and a few other locations in Alaska.

Little-known away from Alaska's northern coast, Arctic cisco help sustain the wildlife and people of the arctic. Similarly, the Arctic Refuge contains coastal waters which sustain this important natural resource.

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Refuges: where wildlife comes first

Refuge Information | Wildlife | Habitat | People
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Text and graphics by USFWS staff
Last modified 28 July 2000

Why we archived the ANWR website at

Note: This is the archive of the FWS Arctic National Wildlife Refuge website. In December, 2001 FWS took this website offline, making it unavailable to the public. It includes 90 plus pages of information and many maps. As of 2006 the important information contained in this, the original "unsanitized" version of the FWS website, has yet to return to the internet, so we will continue to maintain it here as a permanent archive to help inform activists and concerned citizens. If you find any broken links, please report them to me at [email protected] and I will attempt to make the repairs. January, 2008 update - A small part of the original information that was present in 2001 has made it back into the current ANWR website. There is also an archive that contains a small amount of the original information, but it is not readily available from the main website.

Click here to visit our homepage. Click here for NRDC's message about ANWR from Robert Redford.

For more information on why this website was "pulled," Check here. And, you can also view the maps of caribou calving areas that the FWS did not want you to see here.

January 29, 2008: Visit Our New ANWR News for Updates

This page should be cited as follows:

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2001. Potential impacts of proposed oil and gas
       development on the Arctic Refuge’s coastal plain: Historical overview and
       issues of concern. Web page of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,
       Fairbanks, Alaska. 17 January 2001.

Archived by Visit us at is an independent firm specializing in the publication of educational and research resources. We created the first U.S. based interactive toxic chemical facility maps on the internet in 1996 and we have been online ever since. Learn more about us and view some of our projects and services.

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