Illustration: Kerry Hodgson/Can Geo
Capelin pervade the earliest annals of Newfoundland. The Dictionary of Newfoundland English, which takes most of two pages to illuminate them, stands by the original spelling, caplin, that has been mostly superseded in modern-day usage. Also listed: older, obscure variants including capelan, ceaplin and kibbling, along with a treasury of a shoal of associated terms that includes caplin scull (denoting both migration and the season it defines), caplin seine (a vertical net), caplin sick (what cod get when they’re glutted from eating too many) and caplin pit (the hole by your garden where you toss the fish you’re going to be using to fertilize your potato plot).
“Capelin were primarily a fertilizer crop,” says Roger Pickavance, a retired professor of biology at Memorial University in St. John’s and author of The Traditional Newfoundland Kitchen. Traditionally, in outport and backbay Newfoundland, cod was the fish with which you’d be feeding your family. “When the capelin were in, the codfish were in,” notes Pickavance, “and so with a lot less effort you could catch one big codfish, which would feed a lot of people. Capelin were a bit of a fiddle.”
Starting in the 1970s, fishing fleets from the Soviet Union, Norway, Spain and Portugal scooped up thousands of tonnes of capelin each year in Newfoundland’s waters. That offshore fishery was mostly closed down by 1980, though an inshore fishery continues to this day. In 2017, it netted about 20,000 tonnes. Some of the catch goes to fishmeal for farmers (to feed cattle, chickens and farmed salmon), zoos and aquariums. A thriving Japanese market prizes females for their roe. If you eat sushi, chances are you’ve sampled it as masago.
The question of whether there should be a commercial capelin fishery at all is a contentious one. According to Bourne, the fishery is small enough and short enough that it doesn’t adversely impact spawning. “For the most part, it doesn’t matter how many of the capelin actually make it to the beach to spawn. What matters is how many of those little larvae get off. So, we could have massive spawning, but if you don’t get the right conditions, it could still be a really poor year in terms of how many survive. Or you could have relatively low spawning, but if you get the perfect conditions, it will be great — which is what makes them so hard to predict.”
I consider the Capelin Fish as a blessing to Newfoundland.
Newfoundland’s map counts many “Caplin Coves” — close to 30, by one tally. Sounds like a promise to me, but when I scout an hour-and-a-half northwest of St. John’s to the one near Carbonear, it’s the same old story: the humpbacks and minke whales feasting out in the bay suggest that the capelin are close, but there’s no sign of them ashore.
On the way back to St. John’s, I stop in to see the novelist Michael Winter, who spends his summers near Western Bay. Every year, he stands capelin-ready, dip-net and two five-gallon buckets by the door. And a plan.
“The capelin are like a moving carpet,” he says, “and you have to address them with the net from behind. I remember, as a kid, coming at them from the front and being astonished at how a million of them immediately diverted their forward progress and I netted nothing.”
“I like them fresh, rolled in flour and salt and fried in butter,” he writes to me later. “I can eat a dozen like that, with toast. You don’t need to clean them — the purse of their bones keeps the cooked innards from mixing with the meat.”
My second last day in Newfoundland I take a tip from Twitter and make for Branch on St. Mary’s Bay, two hours’ drive southwest of St. John’s. Describing the “phenomenon of ‘rolling’” in a landmark 1933 capelin study, the biologist G.F. Sleggs saw it this way: “The shoals of fish approach close to the water’s edge and allow themselves to be hurled upon the beach by the breakers.”
When I arrive, it’s in time only for the aftermath: thousands of fish high and drying on the sand spilled out from one end of Branch Beach to the other. Everybody after a feed has already been by with a bucket. It’s just me here now under the gannets kiting overhead, the first of the season’s late capelin gleaming in the mid-morning sunshine, like summer itself.