Sunday, August 12, 2018

The Newfoundland Capelin Fishery Rolling with the Times

It's August, and my family and I hit the road to visit my parents in Twillingate – a small outport community on Notre Dame Bay in Newfoundland. It's been 25 years since I've been here, but the 3 days spent in the minivan were worth it. The kids have been down at the beach pretty much since we got here, hunting for crab shells, sea urchins and bits of sea-smoothed glass. My wife and I have been hiking in over hills perfumed by juniper bushes. Blueberries are everywhere – and just now coming into season in mid-August.

Much is the same as I remember it. But a lot has changed too. Twillingate looks even more beautiful than I recall. Almost every house attracts the eye, either with wildflower-filled gardens, colourful flags, or strategically placed nautical paraphenalia.

Brian with an anchor - Durrell Museum.
It's the vacation of a lifetime. But I can't get over the lack of small boats. My grandfather was an inshore cod fisherman, and I remember him taking me and my sister out in his boat when we visited as children in the 1980s. But in 1992, the Government of Canada placed a moratorium on the cod fishery. The collapse was due to a number of factors – including a significant reduction of the codfish's main food source, capelin (see: Collapse of the Atlanticnorthwest cod fishery,” Wikipedia).

Alice and Veronica - Durrell (South Twillingate Island)

The Central Voice, Newfoundland and Labrador's newest newspaper (it began publishing on August 1st) was laying around my parent's house, and the temptation to read it proved irresistible, despite having told my wife that I my vacation would also be from the media (traditional and social). “I'm just going to look at the pictures,” I argued, unconvincingly.

But the photographs told enough of a story that I was hooked – like the proverbial codfish on the end of a jigger. The Page 2 story was a local one – all about how the capelin had come in, and were apparently more abundant than they'd been for a long while. The photos showed smiling fisherman posing with their catch – tonnes of tiny, smelt-like fish piled on ice in massive blue plastic containers (see: Capelin rolling in for Notre Dame Bay communities,” the Central Voice, August 8, 2018. - no online link).

Capelin were late coming in this year,” I said. “Too bad we just missed them. That would have been a sight for the kids to see.”

The “Capelin Roll” isn't just for fishermen any more. It's massively popular with tourists – and with the infrastructure that's in place to support the province's important tourism industry. The Newfoundland and Labrador website describes the annual inundation as “a glittery, spectacular pop-up festival” (see: The annual Capelin Roll – Aglittery, spectacular pop-up festival,” Newfoundland & Labrador, undated). There's even a Twitter hashtag #CapelinRoll, that you can follow online before packing your family up in the minivan and head out to where the action is.

During the roll, the coves are littered with a vast copulation of squirming silver-coloured fish. Along with being the primary food source for North Atlantic cod, capelin have long been a staple food for those living in the province's coastal communities. As a young boy, I remember enjoying my grandmother's capelin baked in the oven, head and all – a delicious, salty snack. But today, capelin are largely exported for fertilizer, although their roe is likely to end up in Japan, adorning sushi rolls (see: "Capelin," Wikipedia).

The World Wildlife Fund has called for the use of the precautionary principle to better manage the capelin fishery, which has declined by 70% just in the last couple of years (see: Precautionary approach tomanaging capelin fishery essential: WWF-Canada,” World Wildlife Fund-Canada, March 22, 2018). Without better management, it seems likely that the capelin fishery may be the next to collapse. That will bring an end to the pop-up festivals – and likely doom any chance for the recovery of the cod fishery. It leaves me wondering what Twillingate might look like 25 years from now.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Parties of Ontario and Canada)

Originally published as "May: Newfoundland capelin fishery rolls with the times," in the Sudbury Star, August 11, 2018.

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