On Capelin Watch
This annual event has no set date, it happens fast and doesn’t last long. Will you be ready when the capelin roll?
Beginning in late June, especially during a run of mauzy (foggy, damp) weather, folks in the know start scanning the beaches for more than driftwood. They’re looking for a dark pool in the incoming tide, and a distinct flurry of movement in the waves as they sweep in over pebbly and sandy beaches. A silvery shimmer, a flick of tails and scales, followed by a burst of commotion on the landwash. Then the call is heard around the community, “The capelin are rolling!”
Capelin (Mallotus villosus) is a pelagic fish, meaning it lives in the deep ocean most of its life, from Greenland to Alaska, Japan to Atlantic Canada. They only come ashore to spawn. That is what all their fuss is about when the capelin roll - the females come ashore to lay their eggs, where the males fertilize them.
These tiny smelt-like fish have silver and green backs, and silvery white bellies. During spawning season, the males’ heads and backs appear darker and their fins larger than the females’, and the males gain a row of longer scales on their sides, called “spawning ridges.” After laying their eggs, the females head back out to sea to spawn somewhere else again someday. The males hang around in the shallower waters to spawn more than once and they die when the spawning season is over. Essentially, they sacrifice themselves for the survival of their species.
Capelin feed on plankton and small crustaceans. More importantly, they are the food source for much higher ups on the food chain, from cod to squid, seals and whales. In fact, when the capelin are rolling ashore, there are often whales spotted in those bays. They’ve chased the schools on the hunt for a tasty meal. Seabirds also fill the sky and put off quite the high diving show when the capelin are in.
Also flocking the beaches in search of a meal are the locals. Whenever the capelin roll - doesn’t matter if it’s under a brilliant sun or a shimmering moon - the crowds come with their cast nets, dip nets and buckets. It’s an all-ages event, and the delighted squeals and shouts could be from a toddler or a senior, in hip rubbers or sandals, all equally excited to grasp the slippery, flapping fish by the dozens. Some freshly caught capelin will be cooked up over a fire right there on the beach; others will be carefully salted and dried at home and later fried up with scrunchins, barbecued, or frozen for a mid-winter treat. Some like them cleaned with heads removed, like a trout or salmon, and others scarf them down whole. And while there’s not a lot of call for it in Newfoundland and Labrador, there is a market for capelin roe made into caviar and sushi. (Traditionally, rather than eat them, local residents add capelin to their vegetable beds to fertilize the soil.
In 2018, the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) revealed that their 2017 capelin count showed the stock size had plummeted 70 per cent since the last count in 2015. Their research suggests it’s not related to the commercial capelin fishery, which harvested about 20,000 tonnes of capelin in 2017, but more likely environmental factors. A group of interested parties, including DFO, Parks Canada and the World Wildlife Federation, have launched the website www.ecapelin.ca to encourage citizen scientists to help them gather data on the small, but significant fish. Anyone who sees the capelin rolling can submit a photo to the website along with the time, date and location of the sighting. That information will be displayed on a map there, which other folks can use to find out where the capelin are. You can also use and follow the social media hashtag #capelinroll2019.
Crispy Deep-Fried Capelin
By Academy Canada Culinary Class
20 male capelin, cleaned
and heads removed
1/4 cup cornmeal
3/4 cup fine breadcrumbs
1/4 tsp celery salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp cumin, ground
1/2 tsp onion powder
1 cup flour
1/2 cup milk
Mix together cornmeal and breadcrumbs in one bowl. In a second bowl, combine flour and spices. In a third bowl, whisk together eggs and milk. Lightly moisten the capelin with water, but only just enough that the flour can stick. Roll each fish in the flour and spices, shake off the excess and dip in egg wash, then roll in crumbs. Pat to be sure it’s all coated. Deep fry in oil heated to 325°F until golden brown. Serve immediately.
Yield: 4 servings
Capelin Catching Kit
Keep in your trunk at least one item from each category
Rubber boots / Hip waders • Sandals (but water will be cold!) • Water shoes • Spare dry socks and shoes
Dip net • Cast net • Rod and reel
Fish tub / plastic tub with lid
Salt beef bucket
Camp chairs • Kindling • Matches/ lighter • Beach blankets
Often in late May to late June, there is a stretch of foggy, rainy, muggy weather in Newfoundland and Labrador. Like Sheila’s Brush that always brings snow after St. Patrick’s Day, this weather lore has proven uncannily accurate every year. Where NL weather can be otherwise unpredictable, you can pretty well count on the mauzy spring weather being broken as soon as the capelin start rolling on the beaches.