Species Profile

Dolly Varden Western Arctic populations

Scientific Name: Salvelinus malma malma
Taxonomy Group: Fishes
Range: Yukon, Northwest Territories
Last COSEWIC Assessment: November 2010
Last COSEWIC Designation: Special Concern
SARA Status: Schedule 1, Special Concern

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Quick Links: | Description | Habitat | Biology | Threats | Protection | National Recovery Program | Documents

Image of Dolly Varden


The Dolly Varden (Salvelinus malma) belongs to the salmon and trout family (Salmonidae), with members that may be anadromous (use both seawater and freshwater during their lifecycle) or non-anadromous (freshwater only). There are two subspecies recognized in Canada - Western Arctic populations, or "northern form" (S. malma malma) and the Pacific populations, or "southern form" (S. malma lordi). The northern form Dolly Varden has the following characteristics: Body is laterally-compressed, with large eyes below the top of a round, medium-sized head; caudal peduncle is long and wide; the caudal fin is broad, flat and unusually unforked; juveniles are brown with a whitish belly, with small red spots on the sides and back, and 8 to twelve rectangular parr marks on their sides and back; adults have small, pale-pink or red spots with surrounding halos; spawning sea-run males are brightly coloured and will develop a hook in the lower jaw; females, non-spawners, and non-anadromous males are more muted in colour; and sea-run adults reach over 350 millimeters in length, while non-anadromous adults are 300 millimeters or less.


Distribution and Population

The Western Arctic populations of Dolly Varden are found in northeastern Eurasia and northwestern North America. In North America, the Western Arctic populations range north from Bristol Bay along the north slope of Alaska and the Yukon Territory, and east to the Mackenzie River. In Canada, the Western Arctic populations occur in drainages that flow into the Beaufort Sea. Approximately five to 10 percent of the global population exists within Canadian waters. Population sizes are largely unknown, with information limited to selected sites.



Several different life history types of Western Arctic populations of Dolly Varden exist: i) anadromous (sea-run) types that reside in their natal drainage for about three years, before migrating out to sea to feed for the summer; ii) non-anadromous (freshwater) males that live alongside anadromous fish in the fall and winter and reproduce by "sneaking" into redds to spawn with anadromous females; and iii) other non-anadromous types that are found above falls, a long distance from the sea, or in lakes. Both anadromous and non-anadromous types spend the fall and winter in freshwater environments that are well oxygenated with abundant shoreline cover and vegetation.



Spawning occurs in the fall in headwater streams where the females bury their eggs in the gravel. Fry emerge in May or June. The anadromous Dolly Varden remain in their freshwater drainages for about three years, and are known as "parr" before undertaking their first migration out to sea. At this life stage, they evolve into "smolts" and develop the ability to live in sea water. In the fall, they return to freshwater. The non-anadromous types remain in freshwater environments throughout their lives.



Climate change, particularly the trend towards drier and warmer climates in the Western Arctic, is a key concern. Lower water levels and reduced groundwater flow may have a dramatic impact on Dolly Varden habitat, particularly for spawning and overwintering. Other threats include overfishing, offshore development that impedes the migration and movements of Dolly Varden, and land-based industrial and infrastructure developments that impact freshwater system flows and water quality.



Federal Protection

More information about SARA, including how it protects individual species, is available in the Species at Risk Act: A Guide.

In 2012, amendments to the Fisheries Act were passed into law, and were in force as of November 25, 2013. Where the Dolly Varden’s distribution overlaps with those fisheries protected under the Fisheries Act (i.e., commercial, recreational or Aboriginal fisheries), its habitat would also be additionally protected. Fisheries and Oceans Canada is currently considering this species for listing as Special Concern under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA). More information about SARA, including how it protects individual species, is available online at AquaticSpeciesAtRisk.ca or on the SARA Registry at SaraRegistry.gc.ca.

Provincial and Territorial Protection

To know if this species is protected by provincial or territorial laws, consult the provinces' and territories' websites.



PLEASE NOTE: Not all COSEWIC reports are currently available on the SARA Public Registry. Most of the reports not yet available are status reports for species assessed by COSEWIC prior to May 2002. Other COSEWIC reports not yet available may include those species assessed as Extinct, Data Deficient or Not at Risk. In the meantime, they are available on request from the COSEWIC Secretariat.

6 record(s) found.

COSEWIC Status Reports

  • COSEWIC Assessment and Status Report on the Dolly Varden Salvelinus malma malma (Western Arctic populations) in Canada (2011)

    Dolly Varden char belongs to the family of salmon- and trout-like fishes. Two subspecies of Dolly Varden are recognized in Canada, the southern form (“Dolly Varden (Pacific populations)”) and the northern form (“Dolly Varden (Western Arctic populations)”). The latter is the focus of this status report. As they mature, Dolly Varden (Western Arctic populations) change colour and shape, and grow in size, reaching more than 350 mm in length for anadromous (sea-run) adults, and usually 300 mm or shorter for non-anadromous adults. Juveniles are brown with a whitish belly, have small red spots irregularly-distributed on the sides and back, and have eight to twelve rectangular parr marks on the sides. Non-anadromous adults retain the parr marks whereas anadromous individuals lose the marks in sea water. Spawning anadromous males develop a hook or “kype” in the lower jaw and are strikingly coloured, with bright orange-red spots on their sides and an orange-red ventral surface. Female anadromous adults, non-spawners, and non-anadromous adults have a more muted colouration.

Response Statements

  • Response Statement - Dolly Varden, Western Arctic populations (2011)

    This fish from freshwater and marine habitats of Canada’s western Arctic has a very limited area of occupancy associated with a relatively small (17) number of locations that are key for spawning and overwintering. Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge suggests declines in some populations, and the small area and number of key habitats make the species particularly susceptible both to point source (e.g., overexploitation, stochastic events) and broader-scale events (e.g., climate change) that may eliminate or degrade habitats.


  • Order Acknowledging Receipt of the Assessments Done Pursuant to Subsection 23(1) of the Act (2016)

    His Excellency the Governor General in Council, on the recommendation of the Minister of the Environment, acknowledges receipt, on the making of this Order, of the assessments done pursuant to subsection 23(1) of the Species at Risk Act by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) with respect to the species set out in the annexed schedule.
  • Order Amending Schedule 1 to the Species at Risk Act (2017)

    His Excellency the Governor General in Council, on the recommendation of the Minister of the Environment, pursuant to subsection 27(1) of the Species at Risk Act, makes the annexed Order Amending Schedule 1 to the Species at Risk Act.

COSEWIC Annual Reports

  • COSEWIC Annual Report - 2010 - 2011 (2011)

    Under Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA), the foremost function of COSEWIC is to “assess the status of each wildlife species considered by COSEWIC to be at risk and, as part of the assessment, identify existing and potential threats to the species”. COSEWIC held two Wildlife Species Assessment Meetings during the past year assessing the status or reviewing the classification of a total of 92 wildlife species.

Consultation Documents