Capelin: A Small Fish of Great Importance

Figure 1. 4RST Divisions of St. Lawrence Estuary and Gulf of St. Lawrence (Source: DFO 2011).

Figure 1. 4RST Divisions of St. Lawrence Estuary and Gulf of St. Lawrence (Source: DFO 2011).

Capelin was traditionally fished in the St. Lawrence Estuary and Gulf of St. Lawrence for use as fertilizer or bait. Today, its roe is primarily sold to the Japanese market. This extremely lucrative market has sent the capelin fishery skyrocketing. Landings have increased from some 700 tonnes to over 10 000 tonnes per year. Capelin's ecological significance has prompted Fisheries and Oceans Canada to step up efforts to protect this coveted resource. François Grégoire, a biologist at the Maurice Lamontagne Institute in Mont-Joli, Quebec, is in charge of assessing capelin stocks in the St. Lawrence Estuary and the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Capelin is a small fish that lives in the water column. The species is referred to as pelagic. Capelin prefers the cold waters of the Northern Hemisphere. It lives in the northwestern Atlantic in a vast territory that extends from the Labrador coasts to the St. Lawrence Estuary. Capelin is a forage species and attracts many predators, including fish species and marine birds. According to recent estimates, between 300 000 and 400 000 tonnes of capelin are consumed annually in the St. Lawrence Estuary and Gulf of St. Lawrence. This interest in capelin serves the marine ecosystem well. The increase in catches in recent decades reinforces the importance of carefully assessing and protecting this species.

In Europe, which boasts the largest capelin landings in the world, stocks are assessed very precisely each year. These assessments are made using acoustic surveys and mathematical models that describe ecosystem requirements. Here, the massive territory and low catch volume do not justify such an exhaustive assessment. Historical monitoring of catches and biological data for three fishing areas (see Figure 1) along with the calculation of a dispersion index allow for an assessment of the status of the resource in the St. Lawrence Estuary and the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Prior to 1970, there was almost no capelin fishery in the St. Lawrence Estuary and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Commercial fishery began in earnest in the 1980s and 1990s. The 90s saw fishery for capelin expand to the southern part of the gulf and the Scotian Shelf. The considerable drop in abundance of groundfish, capelin predators, and the presence of unique oceanographic conditions, could explain this expansion. In 2009, capelin landings reached 12 080 tonnes. Most landings in the Gulf of St. Lawrence are recorded in Division 4R on the west coast of Newfoundland (cf. Figure 1). In this area, fishers were already well equipped for the pelagic fishery (mackerel and herring); they only had to modify the mesh in their fishing gear to adapt it to capelin fishery.

It is too soon to tell whether the southern gulf is an environment that is conducive to capelin spawning and permanent capelin settlement. However, the presence of capelin in this new territory is proof that pelagic fish populations are still moving about. They move, travel and colonize in new environments. They are even difficult to monitor on an annual basis. To know and understand why they are present in some locations one year and absent the next, biologists use a new database: the Capelin Observers Network observations registry (see box). Using observations gathered over the past 10 years, the data recorded by the Network, along with certain environmental measurements, can be used to estimate stocks and to better monitor and understand this small fish.

Zooming in on the Capelin Observers Network

Figure 2. Observed capelin presence and spawning in Lower Estuary between 2002 and 2010 (Source: Observer Kit 2011, Capelin Observers Network)

Figure 2. Observed capelin presence and spawning in Lower Estuary between 2002 and 2010 (Source: Observer Kit 2011, Capelin Observers Network)

The Capelin Observers Network was established in 2002. In Quebec, it is coordinated by DFO biologist Pierre Nellis. The network receives and processes observations provided by the general public. Most of them live along the shore and observe capelin in their everyday activities. Regional environmental protection organizations are associated with the Network, to promote it and to recruit observers. The information gathered deals largely with spawning site locations and spawning intensity.

Capelin lay their eggs on the edges of beaches. Between mid-April and early August, especially at night, the fish arrive in large tight schools-males first, then females. It is said that they "roll" on the beach. Spawning varies with the weather and several factors have an impact on it. For example, a mild winter, change in ice cover or fresh water supply can explain spawning variations.

Network members who witness this spawning phenomenon make note of the geographic location, date and time, approximate number of fish, weather conditions and any other relevant information. This information is then sent in by telephone or recorded in the Network's online registry.

Figure 2 shows the location of observations in the Lower Estuary between 2002 and 2010. Record statistics were recorded in 2009 with 351 mentions made by 123 observers. Every year, observers receive a kit containing a multitude of basic information on how capelin live and reproduce, a summary of the previous year's observations and a data collection form.

Since 2011, the Network has received data reporting capelin spawning on the Newfoundland and Labrador coasts. The goal is to cover all of eastern Canada within a few years. Capelin knows no borders; its territory is vast. With more observers and information, we hope to better understand and recognize the factors that influence capelin behaviour in order to protect its habitat.

For more information about the Capelin Observers Network and to consult the registry, visit https://ogsl.ca/en/biodiversity/fish/dfo-capelin/network.html

Reference

DFO. 2011. Assessment of the Estuary and Gulf of St. Lawrence (Divisions 4RST) Capelin Stock in 2010. DFO Can. Sci. Advis. Sec. Sci. Advis. Rep. 2011/008

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