Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Vital Link

Around the shores of Newfoundland and Labrador, summer brings a remarkable surge of life; millions of seabirds build their nests, whales arrive to feed and put on collective tons of essential fat, and most of them rely, in whole or in part, on a single food source: the caplin (or capelin). This small forage fish, Mallotus villosus, is a member of the smelt family. They come in to follow the dense clouds of plankton found in coastal waters, and spawn on the sandy or fine-gravel beaches. Not only the whales and seabirds but squid, mackerel, seals and cod consume caplin at least to some degree.

The caplin roll in onto the beaches in vast schools, the females laying their eggs which are then fertilized by the males. There is a very high mortality rate at this phase of their lives -- nearly all the males die, while a small percentage of the females survive to spawn another year; the eggs remain on the beaches, looking like grains of golden sand, waiting for the next high cycle of tides to carry the young to sea. Traditionally, the dead or "spent" caplin were gathered by residents of coastal communities and dug into the soil as garden fertilizer. A comparatively small quantity were also harvested for eating fresh or for salting and drying.

Today, though, there is a commercial fishery for this vital link in the food web, despite opposition from those who believe that because of its vital role in the life cycle of so many species, the caplin should not be subject to commercial harvest. If you happen to be in Newfoundland when the caplin are spawning, the scene is definitely worth a side trip: whales feed offshore, birds dip beneath the surface to feed themselves and their young, and crowds of people head for the beach to cast a net, or simply to watch the spectacle.

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