Although I may not be the most charismatic Arctic species (looking at you, narwhals), I play a huge role in the marine ecosystem. I am one of the most abundant fish in the circumpolar Arctic, occurring in all corners of the region in icy, sub-zero waters. I am able to thrive in such cold waters because I produce something called a glycoprotein– it serves as an antifreeze in my blood. Not to brag, but this is a pretty amazing evolutionary feat.
I have a huge appetite. When large schools of us get together, we can sometimes feed so aggressively that we cause local depletions of zooplankton. But by ingesting all that food, we grow large enough to serve as a high-energy food source for seabirds and Arctic marine mammals like ringed seals, narwhals and beluga whales.
Did You Know?
In ice-free waters, we come together in gigantic schools, but when under the ice, we hide in the cracks from predators.
The Arctic pack ice is an important habitat for me to mature as a young fish, and as I get older still serves as a safe haven from marine mammals and sea birds that prey on me. Plus, there are no other fish to compete with for resources there, because no one else can handle these cold, cold temperatures. Our population numbers are directly related to formation and break-up of seasonal polar ice.
Unfortunately, this dependence on sea ice poses a bit of a problem. The Arctic is warming more than twice as fast as the global average as a result of climate change and sea ice habitats are rapidly disappearing. If sea ice failed to form it would cause huge problems for us. Diminishing sea ice habitat makes it harder for us to reproduce, which decreases our numbers overall. This, in turn, affects all of the other species who rely on us for food. Additionally, as water temperature warms in the Arctic, sub-Arctic species will be able to move northward and compete with us for food.
One thing is for certain: without us in the food chain, the Arctic ecosystem would be drastically different.