Nfld. & Labrador

Capelin crisis? Fishermen, DFO at odds

Everyone agrees there are fewer of the tiny fish, but not on how serious the situation is.

'It looks like to me like we overfished the main stock,' says longtime mariner

Scientists at Fisheries and Oceans Canada in St. John's study the contents of capelin stomachs, looking for clues to why numbers are declining. (CBC)

Capelin might be tiny, but their impact is mighty and fishermen fear their low numbers are creating a bit of a tangle in the food chain. 

"How can you rebuild cod stocks if you destroy the very food it's dependent on?" says Gord Janes, a fisherman, and former mayor, in Salvage on Newfoundland's Eastport Peninsula.

He said capelin are one of the main food supplies for salmon and whales too, and he's concerned about the species.

"Where they went — I mean who's to say? It looks like to me like we overfished the main stock and now we're cleaning up the last bit that used to come around," Janes told CBC's Here and Now cohost Anthony Germain.

Gord Janes is at the end of his fishing career and wonders where all the capelin have gone. He worries about the ripple effects. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

"We figure this stock we're fishing now is what we always used to call the capelin that used to come after the real capelin," he added, noting the fish aren't only smaller but showing up in late July or early August — instead of early June as had been the case in the past.

Janes said that creates a bit of a conundrum when it comes to trying to keep the capelin numbers up.

"I don't see anything wrong with slowing down the fishery or even shutting it down for a few years, but individual communities and plants really depend on the capelin," he said. "I don't know what they're supposed to survive on if you shut it completely or partially." 

Numbers have been worse: DFO

Capelin are definitely having a "downtime" but there is no need to hit the panic button just yet, said scientist Fran Mowbray, who works with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) in St. John's. 

"It's not a dire circumstance. The sort of numbers that we are seeing ... we've seen before, in fact we've seen worse," she said.

DFO scientist Fran Mowbray says capelin numbers are down, but the situation isn't 'dire.' (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

"The last couple of years they've been having some lower numbers and that we had, in part, anticipated because there were fewer that had managed to get off the beach in 2013, 2014, 2015-era," Mobray explained.

She said 2017 won't be remembered as a great year, either. 

The hearty stock of capelin suffered "a huge plunge" in the early 1990s and "unfortunately capelin took a long time to come back and they never really did recover completely," according to Mowbray.

In April, DFO announced it had hired a dedicated capelin researcher and would spend about $2.4 million on new acoustic surveys to get a more detailed assessment of stocks.

Capelin have never recovered fully after a huge plunge in the early 1990s. (Edward Jenkins/Twitter)

Mowbray said capelin are at their lowest numbers in the province in five years, but she remains optimistic.

"It's not so low as it will inhibit the stock coming back. When the environment conditions are there for them to come back, they will come back. But it has to be the right situation."

With files from Here and Now