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Smallest Fish Nets Biggest Share of Profits

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Capelin sold for higher prices in the marketplace this year—despite record low quotas hauled to shore by the province’s saltwater cowboys and girls.

Regional statistics for Fish Landings and Landed Values, posted online by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, show roughly 24,000 metric tonnes (about 53 million pounds for you imperialists) was hauled to shore this year, valued at more than $22 million. That works out to be about .42 cents a pound.

This year’s landed value is well above 2019’s $16.5 million take in the market among fishers who landed a slightly larger quota of 28,000 tonnes (about 62 million pounds).

Only Capelin Fishery Open in 2020

“Prices were through the roof this year,” Fran Mowbray, the department’s top scientist in the Pelagic Fish division, told the Independent.

Earlier this year, Mowbray, a DFO biologist, expressed concern when announcing results of the department’s capelin stock survey from 2019. That survey predicted the troubled capelin—similarly devastated as the cod in the 1990s—would likely suffer a decrease in its biomass index this year.  DFO decided to reduce the overall provincial quota as a precautionary measure. It may have to do the same or worse this year.

Mowbray said the higher price netted in the market this year really doesn’t speak to the current health or biology of capelin but more about “things happening in the rest of the world.”

Besides this province’s capelin fishery, it competes against two other capelin fisheries in northern waters—one off the Barents Sea (northern Russia/Norway) and the other around Iceland/Greenland. Capelin travel between these three fishing areas each year to spawn and eat (and be eaten).  Newfoundland and Labrador’s capelin fishery this year was the only one open.

“Usually by the time capelin arrive here, we get the dregs of market prices but what happened last year is their stocks (further northeast) were also not in great shape,” Mowbray explained. She noted quotas were not set elsewhere “and we had all the market.”

Landing results in the report came from multiple sources, including independent fish landings recorded by fish plants and hails from vessels while at sea, as well as from buyers and logs reporting fishing trips and receipts.

Mowbray said the report’s data is interesting, but other important factors will come into play before scientists make recommendations on any potential quota for 2021. She said they will look at things like the size of capelin caught in this year’s landings, and they will also consider larvae surveys. Because they couldn’t get out to do another acoustic survey this summer due to ongoing Covid concerns, they will again have to rely on information collected in the 2019 biomass survey that resulted in dropping the quota by millions of pounds this year.

“There are a lot of factors to consider,” she said.

Record Low Capelin Quota

The report shows most of the capelin was landed between June and August by inshore and near-shore vessels measuring up to 20 metres long in the Bonavista Bay, Trinity Bay, and Conception Bay waters.

Most of the fishers who did not catch their total allowable limits were in Area 3K waters off White Bay, in between Cape St. John to North Head, and North Head to Dog Bay. Some left over 50 percent of their quota in the sea undisturbed this season—about 1,281 tonnes valued at over $1 million.

There were fixed gear vessels in two areas off the West Coast that also didn’t hit full targets, leaving behind about 881 tonnes in the seas of area 4R3PN.   

The province’s overall total quota for capelin under the North Atlantic Fisheries Organization was set at 27,382 tonnes, but only 24,043 tonnes were landed in 2020.

Mowbray said there are many factors when total allowable catches are not made, and it doesn’t necessarily reflect a problem with stock. Sometimes landings are not met because of “the timing and arrival of the fish,” or because of the type of gear used, the harvesters’ experience, and even ice can impact results—or, simply, fishers abandon capelin to chase bigger fish.

From the NAFO quota, Area 2J3KLP was reduced to 19,377 tonnes this year after acoustic surveys by DFO in 2019 revealed a possible drop in capelin stock when testing waters off Trinity Bay. Mowbray said they will have to extrapolate data from that 2019 survey and make predictions for the spawning biomass for 2021, as well as look at environmental conditions and other information by consulting industry partners.

“We can forecast with data in hand that’s already been collected,” she explained, noting their scientific assessment and recommendations are expected to be completed by March. 

In the meantime, similar market conditions may develop in 2021 should Canada find itself again as the lone player in the capelin game.

Greenland, Barents Sea Capelin Fisheries Likely to Remain Closed in 2021

The International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES), a network of 1,600 scientists from 200 institutes working through an intergovernmental agreement, has recommended governments keep the capelin fishery closed in the Barents Sea in 2021.  

“The lower limit for being able to harvest the stock is set at 200,000 tonnes. It is only 27% probable that the spawning stock will stay above this limit, even without fishing,” stated Bjarte Bogstad, a Norwegian member of ICES, last month.  “Russia and Norway aim for capelin to be primarily food for other animals in the ecosystem in the Barents Sea. If there is a potential surplus, then we will fish for it.”

ICES’ recommendation is based on past surveys, as some studies in the Barents Sea were also not completed this year.

In Iceland last month, the Marine and Freshwater Research Institute also recommended to officials there to also keep the capelin fishery closed for another year. In a report dated October 15, it states its findings for the Iceland-East Greenland-Jan Mayen area for the 2020/2021 fishing season is based on an autumn survey conducted between September 7 and October 5.

“Based on current HCR the Marine Research Institute advises 0 catch of capelin during the fishing year 2020/2021,” the report states. “This TAC [total allowable catch] advice set at catch giving 5% probability that the spawning stock biomass will be below 150 000 tonnes is a re-evaluation of earlier advice of 170 000 tonnes from autumn 2019. This advice will be revised based on the results of acoustic measurements in early 2021.”

Prior to this year’s lone place in the market, Newfoundland and Labrador’s capelin was valued considerably lower.

According to DFO, in 2014 the province landed 29,000 tonnes valued at $9.1 million, while in 2015 and 2016—despite over 36,000 tonnes reaching the market in each of those two years—capelin fetched $10.2 million in 2015 and $13.5 million in 2016. In 2017, the catch was only 22,000 tonnes, and was valued at $6.9 million. In 2018, over 28,000 tonnes of capelin was landed, selling for about $10.5 million.

So far, like Canada, the intergovernmental agencies managing the seas in those areas have not announced any plans for the 2021 capelin fishery.

Photo by Lisa McBride.

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