Capelin are the primary link between zooplankton and predatory fish, like cod. Essentially, these small fish feed on zooplankton — an even smaller animal — and cod, in turn, eat capelin. Although we often overlook the importance of the food our food eats, the cod fishery off Fogo is in fact built on large numbers of cod following capelin.

Tilting, Fogo Island

Close to the end of the July 2015, we were invited to fish for cod during a visit to Tilting, Fogo Island. Once we were out on the water, our host — a former teacher and participant in the recreational fishery — switched on the fish finder and within minutes we could see that we were above a layer of cod about eight meters thick. After ten minutes, we caught 15 fish, weighing about 100 pounds all together. The size of these cod was stunning, but even more incredible was what we found inside them. As the fish were filleted on the wharf, we quickly saw that their stomachs were stuffed with capelin!

Capelin are the primary link between zooplankton and predatory fish, including cod. Essentially, these small fish feed on zooplankton — an even smaller animal — and cod, in turn, eat capelin. Although we often overlook the importance of the food our food eats, the cod fishery off Fogo is in fact built on large numbers of cod following capelin.

After the fishing trip, we walked along the shores and noticed dead, spent capelin lying on the seabed and on beaches. We don’t know all that much about the factors that lead to this onshore migration, but we do know that maintaining abundant capelin in the water is vital for a healthy cod fishery and a healthy marine ecosystem. This is why WWF recently started a new conservation initiative that focuses on the health of capelin as well as other important species of forage fish. 
As we walked over the sand in the intertidal zone (the area that is above water at low tide and under water at high tide) we noticed that the sand and seaweed were covered with millions of capelin eggs, all of which were up to a millimeter in size. Back at the Fogo Island Inn, we were offered dried capelin — a salty, tasty snack that went well with a glass of beer.

Capelin is commercially fished, mostly for their eggs, called roe. The bodies are discarded and eggs are shipped to Japan where they are a delicacy. Back in the old days, most of the capelin fishery was wasteful because the males and skinny females were discarded.

The protection of capelin spawning beaches and responsible management of the fishery is essential for the comeback of the Newfoundland cod. The people of Fogo Island know about the importance of capelin as food for both people and cod. 


 

Bettina Saier

Vice President, Oceans, WWF-Canada

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