There are positive signs in Newfoundland and Labrador's capelin stock this year, according to Fisheries and Oceans Canada stock assessment research released Wednesday in St. John's.
"The capelin were in very good condition in the fall. That meant they're longer and heavier than average. There's lots of zooplankton, especially large zooplankton in the ecosystem," said Hannah Murphy, a DFO research scientist and lead stock assessor.
"We also had an increase in our larval abundance index this year, which is great. Larval survival is related to recruitment in capelin, so the more larvae we have and the more that survive, it's better for the capelin stock."
Murphy said a full capelin acoustic survey happened over 2022, the first since 2019 due to the pandemic in 2020 and vessel availability in 2021.
But the positivity ended there.
This year, for the first time, the DFO has come up with a limit reference point for capelin. It's set at 640 kilotons, the weight of fish in the water, and marks the boundary between the cautious and critical zones.
Capelin are currently in the critical zone and have been since 1991 when the stock collapsed.
The stock did spend two years in the cautious zone since then, when the amount of fish in the water was enough to put them above the limit reference point.
Currently, the stock is at just 262 kilotons, which is deep in the critical zone. In 1990 there was over 8,000 kilotons of capelin in the water.
"After the collapse of the stock we have fewer capelin in the environment and that means there's less competition for food. So these young capelin are eating a lot, they're growing really fast and since maturation is based on length and not age they're maturing at a young age," Murphy said.
"Since they die after they spawn, this has resulted in age truncated population. For fish stocks, we want lots of age classes in the population. Only having age twos and threes is not great for the stock."
Capelin are among the most important species necessary for the health of many other animals such as birds, whales and other fish.
Murphy said it's important to have a capelin forecast model with three parameters: larval densities, condition of capelin in the fall and the sea ice retreat that begins the bloom of zooplankton as a food source.
"We're considering capelin not just on its own but how important it is for the rest of the ecosystem," she said.
"A lot of research coming out of the Newfoundland region has directly related capelin to cod biomass and cod condition. So northern cod status is dependent on capelin status. Furthermore, the state of the fin fish community — so not just cod, but all ground fish — has a clear relationship with the status of cod. So if northern cod is doing well, other ground fish are doing well and capelin are doing well. It's an all ecosystem response."
FFAW wants more data
Meanwhile, the union representing fish harvesters in the province says it's optimistic that more favourable environmental conditions could lead to the stock's growth, but adds the "tone of the assessment" and how DFO chose to set the limit reference point for capelin, matches DFO's overall approach "of dogma-driven science assessments."
"FFAW-Unifor is not surprised with the tone of today's technical briefing by DFO Science, which have been consistently negative, irrespective of the data," said FFAW-Unifor President Greg Pretty in a media release Wednesday afternoon.
"DFO has admitted that capelin is a bottom-up driven stock, which means that a favourable environment is a key determinant of the stock's health – not predation or fishing. Yet despite all of these favourable indicators, DFO Science does their absolute best to portray nothing but doom and gloom when it comes to any commercial fishery in our province."
The union also takes issue with the limit point reference set with consideration for northern cod but not for other prey species as part of the same ecosystem such as mackerel, northern shrimp and snow crab.
The FFAW says it's"inconsistent [of] DFO's Precautionary Approach used in other NL fisheries."
"Despite repeated requests, DFO has failed to capitalize on new survey opportunities to increase the amount of data contributed to the assessment process. Fish harvesters have repeatedly highlighted the important of off-beach spawning and have questioned whether DFO is tracking the increased importance of deep-water (demersal) spawning," reads Wednesday's media release.
"When probed at today's assessment update, DFO Science agreed that deep-water spawning sites provide recruits to the overall capelin biomass."