When it comes to our democracy, are you a capelin or a jellyfish?

·9 min read

How much do you think about capelin?

Probably not as much as I do, but that's not surprising. You're not hosting a daily radio show focused on the ocean. But — and stay with me, here — I'm going to challenge you to think about capelin and maybe prompt you to ponder a lot of other issues concerning the future of this province. So let's wade into the water. Put your rubber boots on. This exploration might get a little deep.

I've been in The Broadcast host chair on CBC Radio for just more than five years now. Prior to that, I have to admit, capelin didn't cross my mind very much.

Oh, sure, I have fond memories of smelling the wee fish drying on flakes at our cabin on the Southern Shore as a young girl.

And watching capelin roll on beaches, in summer, was always a fun Newfoundland experience to share with my visiting mainland friends.

But now that my work centres around what happens in the water off our coast, the fate of capelin is an ever-present concern — largely, as I've learned, because it should be.

The fate of capelin shouldn't be a concern just for fish harvesters and for me, but for all of us as coastal people.

Just like it shouldn't be only a select few that get involved in having a say about who leads this province, and what the important issues are.

Department of Fisheries and Oceans
Department of Fisheries and Oceans

Tiny, but mighty

Let's start with some basic marine science. Capelin are a vital forage fish and the basis of our ocean's food chain. Whales, seals, seabirds, mackerel and many other fish, including our iconic northern cod, are all directly dependent on capelin.

When there aren't enough of the silvery fish (and there aren't, according to the latest scientific assessment by the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans), our entire ocean ecosystem suffers.

DFO's latest stock assessment on cod showed that the fish don't have enough to eat. Cod are cannibilizing themselves and eating juvenile crab in the absence of their preferred prey.

"The fact that they are not able to eat their regular prey such as capelin and shrimp and then are eating their own young, that's a concern," said Karen Dwyer, cod stock assessment biologist with DFO.

Under DFO's precautionary approach model for sustainable management of the stock, northern cod can fall into one of three categories: healthy, cautious or critical. The northern cod stock is still considered to be in the critical zone. That's the same place the stock was 29 years ago when the moratorium was called.

But let's get back to cod's vital food source: capelin.

Darryl Murphy/CBC
Darryl Murphy/CBC

Capelin are amazingly strong-willed. At about 20 centimetres in length, they're tiny but mighty. The tenacious and clever capelin travel vast stretches of the ocean from the deep offshore, powering all the way in to our beaches to spawn in summer, determined to increase their numbers for their own survival and the survival of so much else in the ocean waiting to gobble them up.

Capelin are a kind of face-to-the-gale, against-all-odds kind of fish. Compare them with, say, a jellyfish. Jellyfish are efficient swimmers but they use less energy to move than most creatures in the ocean. They seem to go where the ocean currents take them. No determination. No tenacity. No guts.

'There is more that can be done'

Speaking of guts, you might have heard an interview I did with seabird biologist Bill Montevecchi and conservationist Shane Mahoney on The Broadcast, or maybe you saw the story on CBC's Here & Now. These two have been sounding the alarm about capelin for decades. What Montevecchi and Mahoney both emphasized in their interviews is that the science being done on capelin is sorely lacking.

Montevecchi works alongside DFO scientists but he doesn't blame them; he blames those holding the purse strings.

"They don't have the ability to make an assessment of the size of the capelin stock. That means they don't have the resources, they don't have the capability, they don't have the ships," said Montevecchi.

Scientists don't know the true size or the overall biomass of the capelin stock. Without that, Montevecchi says, scientists and managers can't responsibly set a reference point to help them manage the fishery.

In countries like Iceland and Norway, fishery science, particularly around capelin and cod, is robustly resourced. These countries know the overall biomass of their capelin stock and have successfully managed their cod fishery as a result.

Darryl Murphy/CBC
Darryl Murphy/CBC

DFO's lead scientist on capelin, Fran Mowbray, admits capelin science is incomplete.

"We definitely want to be in that place where we know what's there. There is more that can be done."

Conservationist Shane Mahoney says we have for too long accepted insufficient fishery science. He wonders why there aren't more who demand better both within the fishery and outside the industry.

"The real question here is not really whether ultimately DFO sees it as a problem. The real question is whether the people of Newfoundland and Labrador see it as a problem," he said.

"And if we see it as a problem of sufficient scale, we need to tell our government that we do. And our government, of course, will lobby the people who took control of our fisheries in 1949 to get them to do something about supporting DFO to pursue these questions and do this."

Darryl Murphy/CBC
Darryl Murphy/CBC

There was a wave of clarity that came over me after that interview. When it comes to our democracy and our participation in it, in this province, there are capelin and there are jellyfish. There are those who are engaged in the outcome with a persistent drive to survive and make this place better. You know who you are. And then, there are those who are content to aimlessly drift in and out of the current, rarely if ever making a ripple. And from where I sit, there are far more jellyfish than capelin in our midst.

Mahoney's point is that there is a process in place for everyone in this province to have a voice in our democracy and have a hand in steering our ship. Sadly, as it stands, I'd say the majority of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians aren't even on the boat. Oh, I know, there's a lot of tough talk about the failings of government down on the wharf, at dinner parties and in between sets of lifting weights at the gym, but we've got to exercise more than our jaws if we want meaningful change on capelin science or any other concern.

Use your voice

The day after the interviews with Montevecchi, Mahoney and Mowbray aired, I wanted to hear the thoughts of our provincial representatives on the issue of capelin science and the lack thereof. I put requests in to speak with provincial Fisheries Minister Elvis Loveless and Premier Andrew Furey. Loveless would do an interview, but Furey declined.

Loveless did say at the time he supports and recognizes the need for more science but as for demanding it from the federal government on behalf of the people of Newfoundland and Labrador? "I don't believe taking down a flag or slamming my fist on a table will get results. It's been tried before. I prefer a collaborative approach," said Loveless.

And while I didn't get a taped interview with Furey then, he did happen to exit the House of Assembly while I was in the lobby of the Confederation Building waiting to speak with Loveless. We chatted briefly and I told him I'd like to get his thoughts on capelin science.

"That sounds like a federal issue to me," said Furey.

On that day, several weeks before the election was called, both of these provincial politicians were hard to pin down on the topic of capelin.

To be fair, since then, Furey and Loveless have spoken more about the importance of the fishery, as it has come up on the campaign trail. It's also a platform plank for all three of the political parties. The Liberals promise to work with the Fisheries Advisory Council to create a plan "for a world class, modern fishery." The NDP echo that, and say that the fishery needs to be brought into the 21st century. The PCs, for their part, say the fishery has to grow, but also be sustainable, in order to be successful in the future.

An election can have transformative effects. But, can we, and should we, really expect accurate representation from our elected politicians if they don't have a true sense of our interests?

Like the capelin research scientists, politicians need an overall and detailed survey of a large portion of the electorate, and they shouldn't have to constantly go fishing to get it.

CBC
CBC

Democracy is a privilege. As citizens, we should all feel a responsible to participate. Call or email your MHA or MP on issues that concern you. Weigh in on requests for public input. You've got a voice. Make it heard.

Sometimes it doesn't take much to stoke that fighting Newfoundlander fire in bellies. There was that dastardly discontinuation of mustard pickles and that fence flap (and then a flip-flop) on Signal Hill. We were ready to do battle over those wrongs. But the health of our ocean ecosystem is under threat and many couldn't be bothered to ask that the renewable resource be properly researched and managed for a sustainable future.

Gus Etchegary, the longtime fishery advocate, said earlier this week that "we're down to rock bottom" when it comes to the province's fishery. He has hope for the future, but warns the will has to be there.

So here we are again. Election day looms, one week from now.

Politicians are asking for your vote to form a government — our government. Don't give them your support without an earful on whatever gets your knickers in a knot.

If it hasn't already been, apathy will be our undoing. We need more doggedly determined capelin in our democracy. Now and in the future, it has to be how we roll.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador