Oceana: Small fish, big influence: the case for rebuilding capelin

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Executive Summary

The foundation of Canada’s blue economy is our wild fish populations. Forage fish – the small, schooling fish like herring, capelin and shrimp that feed larger predators – are vital contributors to wild fisheries in Canada. They are targeted directly in fisheries and contribute indirectly as prey to other commercially important fish, like cod, halibut and tuna. While forage fish have large population booms and busts in response to changing environmental conditions, their population dynamics are also influenced by fishing pressure. The most important principle in managing forage fish is that enough must be left in the water to ensure overfishing does not put their populations and their predators at risk.

Off the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador, capelin is a species of forage fish that serves as an important food source for many animals, including iconic northern cod, humpback whales and seabirds. The northeast Newfoundland and Labrador capelin stock (2J3KL) historically sustained an abundant fishery but collapsed in the early 1990s and today is at only six per cent of pre-collapse estimates, while a fishery continues to operate. The outlook for this stock is dire, and unless Fisheries and Oceans Canada takes immediate action to manage it differently, there will be irreversible harm to capelin and all the animals that rely on them to survive – and little chance for any future capelin fishery.

Oceana Canada recommends that Fisheries and Oceans Canada:

  1. Immediately pause the 2J3KL capelin fishery
  2. Develop and implement a forage fish-specific management plan to prevent overfishing before resuming the capelin fishery

The management plan must include:

  • A precautionary approach framework;
  • A minimum stock size biomass, below which it cannot be fished; and
  • A harvest cap, which limits the amount that can be fished.

Rebuilding capelin and establishing a harvest control rule to reduce the risk of future overfishing is an investment in the future fishery and Canada’s blue economy. It is not too late to bring our oceans back to abundance. Allowing our fish populations to rebuild will lead to more valuable and long-term sustainable fisheries.