Nfld. & Labrador

Capelin count: DFO spending $2.4M to study fishery 'linchpin'

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans is spending more time and money on understanding why capelin stocks haven't recovered.

Stock is key to recovery of cod and can affect shrimp as well

Senior scientist Pierre Pepin says capelin are key to the recovery of more valuable fish like cod and also affect crab and shrimp stocks (CBC)

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans is spending more time and money on understanding why capelin stocks haven't recovered.

"Capelin are a linchpin; that's the simplest I can put it. If you don't have a lot of capelin, you don't have a lot of other stuff," senior researcher Pierre Pepin told reporters at a department briefing.

Pepin said the success of other species depends on a healthy capelin population.

"Capelin are energy-rich, they store a lot of fat in their body, so when a predator feeds on that, versus feeding on a crab which is a lot of hard parts and not much meat … the predator will not get as much energy out," he said.

The department has hired a dedicated capelin researcher and will spend about $2.4 million on new acoustic surveys to get a more detailed assessment of capelin stocks.

Capelin collapse

It wasn't just cod that collapsed in the early '90s. Capelin stocks peaked at around six million tonnes before collapsing to next to nothing. Recent surveys show a small recovery to about one million tonnes.

DFO scientists still don't know exactly why capelin stocks collapsed in the early 1990s. (Department of Fisheries and Oceans)

Scientists don't know what caused the collapse, but it came during a period of very cold ocean temperatures.

"Some people argue there was a large die-off, some people argue that the capelin went away," Pepin said.

"This was a very dramatic collapse."

The lack of capelin is also having a negative effect on other more valuable species that commercial fishermen rely on.

It's the preferred food for cod, and without capelin to eat, cod eat small crab and shrimp.

Those stocks have seen a dramatic decline in recent years, with big cuts to quotas for fishermen.

Outlook 'not great'

Capelin don't live very long, so it's difficult to project the health of the stock very far out, but Pepin said it doesn't look good.

"The outlook for the short term, the next couple years, is not great," he said.

"The conditions that we're seeing now aren't allowing the recruitment to be very consistent over time. I was kind of hoping that we'd see more capelin showing."

Scientists warn that overfishing of capelin can have a detrimental effect on many other species. (Submitted by Ryan Peddle)

Pepin said the collapse of cod was linked in part to overfishing, but there is very little fishing of capelin stocks, which means there's not much governments can do to encourage recovery.

"We don't have a lot of control," he said.

Even with the low capelin numbers some fishing is still allowed. In 2016, fishermen were allowed to take about 73,000 tonnes.

But Pepin warned it's important to not take too much fish.

"If you overexploit those, then everything cascades down the rest of the food chain. There's absolutely no way of getting away from that."


Peter Cowan

CBC News

Peter Cowan is a St. John's-based reporter with CBC News.