Capelin: A Small Fish of Great Importance
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.
Figure 1. 4RST Divisions of St. Lawrence Estuary and Gulf of St. Lawrence
(Source: DFO 2011).
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.
- Date Modified: