Nfld. & Labrador

Low capelin return in Labrador and Quebec affecting lives and ecosystem, says researcher

Over the last two decades, capelin spawning behaviour along the coasts of Labrador and Quebec has changed.

Fewer returns each spawning season leaves researchers and locals with questions

There are fewer of these tiny fish in the waters. The question is, why? (CBC)

Changing capelin spawning behaviour over the last two decades along the coasts of Labrador and Quebec is affecting the lives of the locals who rely on the food source and creating a growing concern for the ecosystem, says one researcher.

"Some of the people I have spoke with are also commercial fishermen, so of course they're concerned about it from an economic and livelihood standpoint where capelin directly impacts their income and their fishing enterprises," said Chelsea Boeler, a PhD student at the Marine Institute studying capelin in Labrador and Quebec. 

Boeler is visiting multiple coastal communities across Labrador and Quebec to gather data about the tiny fish, which she says is of utmost importance to the food chain. Fish stocks have been declining during the spawning season, where data is showing less return each year. 

While Northern Labrador has no commercial fishing industry for capelin, Boeler said most locals have a subsistence relationship with the fish — catching and drying them for food during the winter months and also traditions where families would make a day out of catching the fish during spawning season.

Compared to Southern Labrador where commercial fishing for capelin is prevalent, northern residents are more worried about other animals in the capelin food chain such as cod, salmon, seals and whales.

"They're not spawning in a way that we're used to seeing. So basically what people are noticing in Labrador is that they're spawning later in the summer, there are not as many coming to shore," Boeler said.

"They do feel that they may be potentially spawning in offshore locations, which we don't really know a whole lot about, and that when they do come they're not as plentiful as they used to be."

Bigger picture

Boeler believes the delayed spawning season in capelin began around the same time as the fall of the cod stocks in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The shift is similar across Labrador, she said, so it's difficult to pinpoint just one issue as to why the fish's spawning behaviour has changed.

However, Boeler said that temperature change may be one of many reasons for the delayed spawning season. The DFO is working diligently on the island portion of the province to figure out the direct cause of the fish's behaviour shift, she said.

Catching capelin in Newfoundland and Labrador is a tradition for some, and a livelihood for others. (Submitted by Kathy Hardy Savoury)

"I know they're looking a lot at the actual food source for capelin. So [they're] looking at zooplankton and phytoplankton trends over the last few decades, they're also looking at temperature and they're also looking at wind direction," she said.

"So that's ongoing work that's being done on the island and could be correlated to the Labrador region as well, and hopefully that type of work will expand into Labrador over the coming years."

Capelin is a support food for the greater ocean ecosystem, Boeler said, and plays an important role in transferring energy from the lower trophic levels to the larger trophic levels. Further, other animals that rely on capelin for a primary food source are also showing some behavioural changes.

"That's really the worry I guess, is that if capelin are removed or no longer play that role in the ecosystem that it could potentially have wide ranged consequences for those larger species," she said.

"Cod for example, in some areas they're seeing more jellyfish in their stomach, they're seeing more sculpins, what they call bottom feed which is just a muddy mess in their stomach so you can't really tell what it is, rocks and even noticed some cannibalism in cod as well." 

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador                

With files from Labrador Morning

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