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Capelin feed Newfoundland’s puffins and whales, and some worry they’re in trouble


ST. JOHN’S, N.L. – Marine scientists and conservationists are calling on officials to pause Newfoundland and Labrador’s commercial capelin fishery.

The tiny shimmering fish are an important staple in the diets of the whales and puffins that dazzle tourists and residents each summer off the province’s coastlines. Leaving the struggling capelin stock alone to rebuild would only serve the province’s hallmark ocean ecosystem, said marine behavioural ecologist Bill Montevecchi, who is a professor at Memorial University in St. John’s.

“From an ecosystem point of view, it’s going to feed the seabirds, it’s going to feed the seals, it’s going to feed the whales,” he said in a recent interview. “To me, leaving capelin in the ocean is really an investment.”

Capelin are small forage fish from the smelt family; they look like brighter sardines, roughly the length of an adult hand. They arrive in Newfoundland and Labrador’s waters each spring, travelling in massive, roiling schools. Cod and seabirds show up soon after, chasing the subsea clouds of capelin for weeks of feasting.

The capelin wash up on shores in shivering, spawning masses, which draw people with nets, hats, shopping bags and whatever else they can use to scoop up the fish. Offshore, they’ve been fished commercially since the late 1970s, according to reports from the federal Fisheries Department. Like the northern cod, which was the historical bedrock of the province’s fishery for centuries, the capelin stock collapsed in the early 1990s. Also like the northern cod, the capelin have been struggling ever since to recover.

According to the Fisheries Department’s classification system, the capelin stock is in the “critical zone,” which, according to the department’s definition, means removals should be minimal and stock growth should be prioritized. With the exception of 2013 and 2014, it has been in the critical zone since 1991, the department noted in its latest stock assessment.

“When it’s in the critical zone, you don’t touch it,” Montevecchi said. “It doesn’t mean, ‘Oh, let’s go fish it.’ ”

Jack Daly agrees. In a recent interview, the marine scientist with environmental non-profit Oceana Canada pointed to Iceland and Norway, two countries that recently closed their capelin fisheries to give stocks a break.

“The focus (of a capelin fishery pause) is a future where the fishery is profitable and the ecosystem is healthy,” Daly said.

Capelin from Newfoundland and Labrador are sold in boxes of frozen roe-bearing females or boxes of frozen male fish, according to a report from the province’s capelin price-setting panel. The female fish are particularly prized for their roe, and are sold in China, Taiwan and Japan.

The boxes of males are sold in the U.S. to be used for food in zoos and in eastern Europe for human consumption, the report said.

The emphasis on adult females full of eggs means they are removed from the water without having a chance to spawn and produce the next generation of fish, Daly said. “These fish are far more valuable in our waters than out of them,” he said.

Ryan Critch, a Fisheries Department spokesperson, says that although the stock remains in the critical zone, science shows the fishery’s impact on capelin is small compared to predation by other species such as seabirds, cod and other fish. This year’s total allowable catch is 14,533 tonnes, the same as last year. That figure is “the lowest it has ever been,” Critch said in a recent email.

“In making this decision, we considered the science, stakeholder perspectives and socioeconomics, with a goal of a healthy stock and a sustainable fishery now and into the future,” he said.

Jeannine Winkel, a biologist who leads whale and seabird boat tours with tour company Molly Bawn, said she’s also concerned that capelin is being overfished. If the capelin disappear, the puffins and whales will go elsewhere for their food, Winkel said in a recent interview.

“With the amount of money they bring into the province because of the people that come here to see these animals, I think we should be a bit better at taking care of them, and give them everything they need,” Winkel said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 18, 2023.

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