Icy Waters pioneers selective breeding program

Jonathan Lucas loves female Arctic char, the bigger the better, and he's doing everything he can to breed them. "Having all females has been a goal and a dream since before I got here, 12 years ago," Lucas said.

Jonathan Lucas loves female Arctic char, the bigger the better, and he’s doing everything he can to breed them.

“Having all females has been a goal and a dream since before I got here, 12 years ago,” Lucas said.

“Here” is the Icy Waters fish farm that Lucas manages in Whitehorse. It’s now the first in Canada to experiment with a new selective breeding program that aims to produce only female fish.

It’s an idea he’s been chasing since he started at the farm over a decade ago. Having all females, or as close to that as possible, is important because they live longer, grow bigger, and fetch more money.

The problem is that males grow faster at first. That, combined with the wild swings of bitterly cold Yukon winters and relatively warm summers, makes things difficult.

When males get to their second summer, they are still below market weight of three pounds, but the warm water triggers them to start maturing. The males don’t get any bigger, but they develop testes, start behaving aggressively and harassing the female fish.

Once they mature, the males are focusing so much of their energy on breeding that their immune systems start to shut down, and they become much more susceptible to disease. They start dying off in droves, and all before they are big enough to sell.

“Last year, because of the summer we had, we actually lost about nine tonnes of fish. Fifteen to 20 per cent of some tanks just died in August and September last year … that’s about $90,000 just wiped off the books,” Lucas said.

And that’s with a relatively cool summer last year. If it had been warmer, the losses would have been worse.

But now, partnered with a research team at Simon Fraser University, Lucas might just have found the perfect solution: zinc.

Sperm with male chromosomes has a higher zinc concentration, Lucas explained. By introducing a zinc-glutenate compound to fish sperm, breeders are able to separate sperm containing male genes from sperm with female genes, so only the female sperm get through to fertilize the fish eggs.

And the benefits aren’t just bigger fish.

“With farming, all things are connected. When I say we lose 15 to 20 per cent of a tank, that’s over a 10-week period. We try to get them taken out a couple times a day, but you miss some. If it’s warm water, the dead fish start to break down so it’s a loss for us financially, it’s a terrible loss for the fish, and we don’t want to be putting any more (contaminants) than we have to out into the environment. This is a way to help with that as well,” Lucas said.

It’s also safer, Lucas explained.

There is an older method for gender selection among fish. Farmers would subject fish fry to a testosterone bath. When fish are first hatched, they haven’t developed a specific gender yet. The testosterone forces female fish to develop testes, even though genetically they still have XX chromosomes. Cross that with female eggs, and you get more female fish.

The problem with that is twofold. First, fish treated with testosterone aren’t fit for human consumption, only their offspring are. Second, Arctic char have a redundant set of chromosomes that gets in the way.

But this new process doesn’t treat fish; it only treats fish sperm so there’s no risk of mutating or otherwise harming the females that are hatched.

Lucas said the program is still in its trial phase, with a test tank of around 2,000 fish, but he hopes to have it into full production by next spring.

All told, Icy Waters produces around 140 tonnes of fish every season, which works out to 80 tonnes of fillets being sold and shipped across the country.

Contact Jesse Winter at


Just Posted

Skagway Brewing Co. doubles seating, quadruples production

The new location is on Fourth Avenue, between the hardware store and the Starfire Thai restaurant

Leaders raise expectations for federal election at Yukon Forum

‘We really need to be respectful of the progress that we have made in a short period of time’

New procurement policy set to be up and running this spring

The last major procurement overhaul occurred in 1995, Mostyn said

Yukon hospital workers reach tentative deal to avoid a strike

The proposal will be voted on March 4, the union says

Longtime Yukon lawyer, former federal NDP candidate Melissa Atkinson dead at 45

Atkinson, who served as the territory’s first Indigenous Crown attorney, died the morning of Feb. 14.

German rookie wins 2019 Yukon Quest red lantern

Hendrik Stachnau was the last musher to cross the finish line

Hospital workers are prepared to strike

‘They’ve had enough’

Whitehorse mayor calls tax and fee increases reasonable

Council approved the 2019 operations budget

Team Yukon attends pep rally before heading off to Canada Winter Games

The Games are taking place in Red Deer, Alta., from Feb. 15 to March 3.

This year’s Sima Cup medals were delicious

A local bakery provided the prizes

Mushers of all sizes come out for the Babe Southwick Memorial Sled Dog Races

As the leading Yukon Quest mushers were nearing the finish of their… Continue reading

History Hunter: Mining on Dublin Gulch has a long history

A new gold mine is being developed north of Mayo that will… Continue reading

Yukonomist: Yukon carbon tax decisions

With the carbon tax coming into effect on July 1, you now… Continue reading

Most Read