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What is an Inconnu?

By DM Gutierrez
Updated May 21, 2024
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An inconnu is a silver-scaled whitefish that inhabits Arctic and sub-Arctic waters. Found primarily in the Yukon, British Columbia, and Siberia, the inconnu is also known as the sheefish or coney. This species, Stenodus leucichthys, is the largest within the whitefish family, growing as long as 4.9 feet (1.5 m) in certain areas. Although the inconnu has been a staple in indigenous peoples’ diets for thousands of years, it is not typically harvested or farmed for commercial purposes.

This fish typically has silvery scales with green or brown markings on its back. The average adult length is between 17 and 30 inches (45 to 75 cm), though some captured in Siberian waters have been reported close to 5 feet in length (1.5 m). Their average adult weight is 40 pounds (18 kg). These fish have a jutting lower jaw studded with many extremely-fine teeth and a dorsal fin low on the spine closer to their forked tail than in other whitefish.

Little is known about the inconnu’s life cycle. It is believed to spawn every two to four years, either migrating from the ocean to freshwater rivers or remaining in freshwater lakes year-round, depending on the species. Young inconnu inhabit their spawning streams for seven to 10 years when they become mature adults, then move to larger lakes. The North American version of this fish is estimated to live for 11 years, while its Siberian cousin has been reported to live twice as long.

Adult inconnu are carnivorous, eating smaller fish such as stickleback and minnows, small crustaceans, and aquatic insects. Their young eat primarily zooplankton and water insect larvae, only progressing to larger prey once they are adults and have moved into their lake habitats. Once inconnu are grown, they have few, if any, predators. Juveniles, however, are often eaten by larger fish, including their own species.

One species of this silvery whitefish has disappeared from the wild. The population used to migrate almost 2,000 miles (3,218 km) from the ocean to lake spawning grounds each year, but once their migration waterways were interrupted by dams, this species failed to thrive. They now exist only in fish hatcheries, though attempts are being made to restock their former habitats.

Though the inconnu has been eaten by native peoples throughout history, it is not a typical food fish for most of North America. Its flesh is typically flaky, but oily, and is generally best smoked or dried

Frequently Asked Questions

What is an Inconnu?

An Inconnu, also known as Stenodus nelma, is a large freshwater fish native to the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions. It belongs to the whitefish family and is characterized by its silver color and elongated body. Inconnu can grow up to 58 inches in length and weigh over 50 pounds, making it one of the largest whitefish species.

Where can Inconnu be found?

Inconnu are primarily found in the cold, clear waters of the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions. They inhabit large river systems and adjacent seas, such as the Mackenzie River basin in Canada and the Lena River in Siberia. During their life cycle, they migrate between freshwater and brackish environments for spawning and feeding.

What does the Inconnu fish eat?

The Inconnu is a predatory fish with a diverse diet. It feeds on smaller fish, crustaceans, and insect larvae. Juvenile Inconnu tend to consume zooplankton and small invertebrates. As they grow, their diet shifts to include more fish, reflecting their role as an apex predator in their ecosystem.

Is the Inconnu fish endangered?

While not globally endangered, the Inconnu's conservation status varies by region. Some populations are considered at risk due to factors like habitat degradation, overfishing, and climate change. Conservation efforts are in place to monitor and manage these populations to ensure their sustainability and prevent further decline.

How do Inconnu reproduce?

Inconnu are anadromous, meaning they migrate from saltwater to freshwater to spawn. Spawning typically occurs in the late summer or early fall. Females lay thousands of eggs in shallow waters with gravelly bottoms. After hatching, the young may spend several years in freshwater before migrating to the sea, continuing their life cycle.

Can you eat Inconnu, and what does it taste like?

Yes, Inconnu is edible and is considered a delicacy in some cultures. Its flesh is rich and oily, similar to salmon, with a fine texture and mild flavor. It can be prepared in various ways, including smoking, drying, or cooking fresh. The high oil content also makes it an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids.

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