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Big funding for little fishes

They say there’s plenty more fish in the sea. Thanks to some new funding for scientific monitoring, we’re about to find out.

In April, Fisheries and Oceans Canada announced $2.4 million in funding to carry out a full-scale capelin survey during the fall of 2018 in offshore Newfoundland and Labrador (NAFO Divisions 2J3KL). Capelin – a forage fish that’s an extremely important source of food for humpback and fin whales, puffins and Atlantic cod – are one of the keystone species in the cold waters of the north-western Atlantic.

Capelin after spawning on a beach in Newfoundland © Steph Nicholl / WWF-Canada

Capelin after spawning on a beach in Newfoundland © Steph Nicholl / WWF-Canada

 The survey is expensive but will provide the most accurate picture of the state of the entire species biomass and will help DFO improve its sampling approach, making better use of data for future assessments. WWF-Canada has repeatedly called for annual surveys of capelin since our Food for All report was published in August 2016. Food for All revealed that three-quarters of forage fish fisheries, including all of Canada’s capelin fisheries, were being managed without adequate information – meaning that decisions were being made on how many fish to catch without knowing how many there are in the ocean.

Accurate, up-to-date stock assessments are crucial for forage fish fisheries, because populations of small fish can fluctuate significantly from year to year, and because so many other species depend on them to survive. 

Collecting capelin in a net during capelin rolling season in Newfoundland © Steph Nicholl / WWF-Canada

Collecting capelin in a net during capelin rolling season in Newfoundland © Steph Nicholl / WWF-Canada

Since the publication of Food for All, WWF-Canada has been working to remind government of the importance of monitoring the little guys. In September 2016, our Vice-President of Oceans, Bettina Saier, gave testimony to the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans on the northern cod fishery and recommended more frequent capelin monitoring. When the Standing Committee report was published in March 2017, it recommended full annual stock assessments for capelin off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador.

We’re delighted that recommendation will be put into practice by Fisheries and Oceans Canada this fall. A smaller spring survey is also currently underway, and we’ll be watching for those results in a month or two. The information the surveys will provide will help make better fisheries management decisions, as well as inform our understanding of northern cod recovery and give us information on how much predators like whales have to eat.

We’re glad there’s new recognition that small fish are one of the biggest issues for ocean health.