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Tagging Atlantic Salmon in Greenland Takes New England Moxie

October 10, 2019

Research fisheries biologist Tim Sheehan is currently in southwest Greenland, hoping to catch pre-adult Atlantic salmon. He and his collaborators have an ambitious plan: Tag as many salmon as possible with special pop-off satellite tags and acoustic tags.

Qaqortoq Harbor in Greenland

Scientists have a “big picture” understanding of where Atlantic salmon go – from rivers to the Labrador Sea to Greenland and back – but don’t know the details. Special pop-off satellite tags will help get at those details. Each tag is programmed to record data on salmon movement and migration behaviors as well as environmental conditions as the fish swims in the waters around Greenland and on its journey back to natal rivers for spawning. While Tim’s in Greenland, he’ll be blogging about his tagging adventures, sharing his day-to-day experiences and what it’s like to conduct field research in Greenland.

Scientist’s Log: Day 1 and 2

I arrived safe and sound, although it was a bit of a slog to get here. The morning of September 30 started with a bus ride, then four flights crossing the Atlantic twice, then one ferry ride later, I made it to Qaqortoq, Greenland, the evening of October 1. 

Sign post outside Kangerlussuaq Airport in Greenland showing direction and time difference of different locations around the world.

Travel times from Kangerlussuag, Greenland to popular locations around the world. Photo: NOAA Fisheries.

All in all, it went as expected with minimal delays and layovers. The flight from Kangerlussuaq to Narsarsuaq is always really interesting as you fly over some beautiful tundra, mountains, and coastline. The thing that’s really striking from the air is how the arrangement of the land causes some really different microclimates that create unique conditions in and around Greenland’s fjords. In some areas the ice sheet comes right up to the head of the fjord and spills into the fjord. You come across some fjord areas that are packed with ice, some that are packed with ice flows, and some that are almost completely free of any ice — like the area around Qaqortoq.

My ferry ride on the 37-foot Targa was a bit hairy, blowing a gale with gusts exceeding 40 mph with more than 4-foot seas at times. It makes you wonder when you see the captain with his phone out taking a video. 

View outside ferry window of rough seas while traveling to Qaqortoq, Greenland.

Ferry ride to Qaqortoq, Greenland. Photo: NOAA Fisheries.

Regardless, it’s nice to be back in Qaqortoq — this is my fourth trip since 2012. Many familiar sites, sounds, and faces. The population of Qaqortoq is approximately 3,000 so you do start to recognize folks after a bit. I was greeted with the sounds of the harbor and seeing the kids going to and from school over the course of the day.

I’m here to replace my collaborator Jon Carr who is with the Atlantic Salmon Federation —  he was here for the past week plus. He had to deal with unfavorable weather as well, but was able to get out a few times and managed to tag and release seven salmon with PSATs — pop-off satellite tags. Not a bad start! Hopefully we can build off of his initial efforts over the next few weeks. 

Even though the weather in Greenland can be a bit rough,the Qaqortoq area is usually much calmer. Something about the arrangement of the Qaqortoq fjord, the mountains, and the prevailing weather patterns provide this area nice protection from the winds. Hopefully we will have fair days and kind seas ahead. Tonight I meet with our fishing collaborators. Hopefully we will have some good weather news and come up with a plan for tomorrow because I’m all set and ready to go!

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Last updated by Northeast Fisheries Science Center on March 31, 2023