On the Rock, waiting for the roll

Writer Stephen Smith takes to Newfoundland’s shores in his quest to see the ‘capelin roll’ — the spawning spectacle of a tiny fish with a massive ecological, historical and cultural impact

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Capelin is a small fish but larger than an Anchovie. It is of considerable importance to the Fishery of this Country. What I have to say of Capelin is of so strange a nature that I am very much afraid you will doubt my veracity.
— The Newfoundland Journal of Aaron Thomas, an able seaman aboard the Royal Navy’s HMS Boston, 1794 

Summer doesn’t start in Newfoundland and Labrador, so they say, until the capelin roll. Only once thousands of fingerling fish start tossing themselves en masse onto the province’s beaches to spawn will the skies clear and the rain abate as the season shifts over, one to the next. Or as the St. John’s novelist Edward Riche says of the capelin: “My experience is that summer weather will not arrive in Newfoundland until they have completed their piscine orgy.”

Whether or not they can trigger seasons (spoiler alert: they can’t), the tiny species that science knows as Mallotus villosus is, in the parlance, a focal forage fish. That’s another way of saying they’re high in fat and rich in energy — very nutritious — and that everything eats them — seals, whales, seabirds, other bigger fish. 

Dallying down near the bottom of the food chain, capelin don’t exactly dominate the popular imagination. And yet their significance to the balance of the North Atlantic’s marine ecosystem is hard to overstate. While cod sustained the Newfoundland economy and way of life for centuries, it was the capelin they were devouring that brought them inshore by shoal upon teeming shoal.

With the collapse of the cod fishery and the federal government’s 1992 moratorium, some 30,000 Newfoundlanders found themselves out of work. Thirty years later, the cod remains — culturally, at least — almighty. While the niche that the tiny capelin has carved into the province’s history, character and local sympathy isn’t as well known, it still runs deep. And I’m here to try to fathom what I can of that. 

To wander a beach in June or July and see the capelin tide for the first time is to wonder whether this constitutes a natural calamity in progress, rather than an ancient natural phenomenon. However, in the moment, it’s easy to join in the festive spirit that capelin weather, and the rites it generates, brings to these shores.

As recently as five or six years ago, the arrival of the capelin coincided more or less with Newfoundland’s July 1 Memorial Day weekend, commemorating First World War soldiers of the 1st Newfoundland Regiment. But that wasn’t at all the norm: from 1991 through 2010 and starting again in 2015, capelin spawning has been a mid-July to early-August affair, due to colder water temperatures. 

My capelin quest starts in late June in Trinity, a three hours’ drive northwest of St. John’s. By the time I arrive, there’s word of orcas off Bonavista, just to the north, which means they’re feeding on capelin. Within a couple of hours, I hear from a retired fisherman that a buddy of his filled his buckets over at English Harbour, where the capelin always show up first on this stretch of coast. So first thing Sunday morning, fog o’clock, that’s where I go.  

Nobody’s out yet, and it’s still too early for the wind or any view that’s not haze. The smell is salt and wet. English Harbour is a scattering of socked-in houses behind me, facing out on the ghost of an ocean haunted by the sad mooing of a warning horn on the headland, known as Horse Chops. It’s just me and gulls on the shale, waiting. I’ve been advised that it’s not quite warm enough yet for capelin, and that the salinity may not be right, or the wind. Another fisherman says that if I pour a little beef pickle on the beach, the capelin will be in directly. But they have to be out in the bay.

The longer I linger, the more I’m convinced the gulls are looking to me to conjure capelin. In the end, we’re all disappointed.

They go in great numbers so innumerable as the leaves of the Trees in an immense Forest.

Aaron Thomas
Spawning migration routes of capelin in the northwest Atlantic.
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For all the seasonal commotion they cause on Newfoundland beaches, capelin are pelagic fish, which is to say they spend most of their short lives far from shore in the deeper waters of the Grand Banks and beyond. (They also abound in northern waters, near Iceland and in the Barents Sea, and to a lesser extent, in the northern Pacific.)

Shimmering pale green and silver, capelin look like anchovies or sardines or smelts, at a glance. They grow to a length of up to about 20 centimetres. Males can be distinguished by the ridges they develop down their lengths — to help them stick by their mates during spawning.

Christina Bourne, a marine biologist for Fisheries and Oceans Canada, explains this and more to me one gauzy grey (fish-free) morning on Middle Cove Beach near St. John’s. Bourne and her colleague, research scientist Paul Regular, are giving me a quick tutorial touching on capelin diet (planktons), lifespan (up to four years), the fine particulars of mid-surf mating (incredible) and how many eggs a single, slender female will deposit on the beach (7,000 to 40,000, depending on just how slender she is.)

The downfall of the cod fishery is well documented in Newfoundland and Labrador, and the devastating consequences of the ’92 moratorium on the province’s economy and social order still reverberate. Not so well known, however, is the fact that the capelin suffered a collapse of their own, in 1991. An index modelled from a portion of the stock estimated that capelin biomass dropped from some six million tonnes in 1990 to about 150,000 tonnes in 1991.

The cause? “Nobody is 100 per cent sure,” says Bourne. What is known is that forage fish are prone to booms and busts. Scientists think a drop in ocean temperatures played a significant role, as did predators and overfishing. Complicating the capelin story is the fact that their decline in biomass coincided with a regime shift — a sudden, substantial and still mostly mysterious change in the northwest Atlantic’s overall ecosystem.

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There’s not enough proof to show that the capelin collapse directly triggered the demise of the cod, but there’s no dismissing the ecological evidence of the capelin’s significance to the balance of Atlantic life. “They funnel a lot of energy up through one species,” says Regular. “And if they disappear from the system, then that can have dramatic consequences.” 

If capelin stocks in Newfoundland and Labrador still haven’t recovered from the events of the early 1990s, they’ve also suffered more recent setbacks. In 2018, late spawning was linked to a 70 per cent decline in the population compared with 2015 numbers. With the increasing impacts of climate change, the need for more data is becoming more and more crucial. In Iceland, scientists take acoustic surveys of capelin twice a year, allowing them to establish a biomass reading and the means to regulate the commercial fishery to make sure spawning stock isn’t endangered.

“What they do is a survey that gets the whole population,” says Bourne, “and they have a limit set that if the biomass falls below a certain level, they shut it down.” In Newfoundland, that’s still something to aspire to: as it is, Fisheries and Oceans Canada takes a survey each spring from which scientists can model the rise and fall of capelin stocks — what they call an “absolute abundance estimate” —  but not establish absolute numbers.

This year’s findings are still being studied, but early returns suggest there’s reason for optimism. Gail Davoren, a professor in the department of biological sciences at the University of Manitoba who focuses on capelin and how they shape the food web, spent much of the summer patrolling Newfoundland shores.

Along with plentiful spawning, she and her team saw other signs that gave them hope for the species’ future. “Larval densities were much higher in our area than last year,” says Davoren. “This hopefully indicates a decent stock in the next few years — although time will tell.”

Tons and tons of them are thrown ashore every year and very amazing quantitys are taken for Bait for catching the Codd with, as well as dry’d and eaten by the people.

Aaron Thomas 
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I do some chasing. I head over to Long Beach, southwest of Bonavista, on word that spawning might be underway there. Nothing doing.

Online, expectation is building. On Twitter, the hashtag #CapelinRoll2019 guides the way. Chatter on another online message board is a good guide to provincial anticipation:

Can’t wait for the capelin, Kayla logs on June 17.

June 25, Robert: Any caplin in middle cove or flatrock?
June 27, Jenna: Just got told they are rolling in Kings Point. Anyone around the area to confirm? 

Later, I motor out into Trinity Bay with Bruce Miller. A fisherman of long experience, Miller’s main business now, Rugged Beauty Boat Tours, has him steering summer visitors through the sights and stories of Newfoundland’s outport past. Nobody lives in Kerleys Harbour anymore, a ghost town 20 minutes south of Trinity through the waves: the grey bones of abandoned houses and long-ago churches lie in the grass. “There they are,” says Miller, bringing us in to drift 10 metres offshore. The capelin haven’t made a move for the beach yet, but they’re all around our hull, tearing up the surface of the cove. 

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.

Aaron Thomas  
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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.


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