About

Have You Seen Capelin Spawning?
Submit your Observation

The Capelin Observers Network (CON) was established to gather more information about the beaches and other spawning sites in the estuary and Gulf of St. Lawrence in order to foster reproduction of this species.

How many spawning sites are there? Which ones are used every year or only occasionally? Have there been any changes in capelin spawning habits? What influences the use of one beach rather than another? CON is helping to directly answer these questions by gathering multi-year data. Knowledge about spawning sites also helps prevent disturbance of these habitats by human activities (like shore work) during the critical fish reproduction period. It is good to know that recreational and commercial fishing activities in Quebec are not considered a threat to capelin since the size of the catch is small relative to the species’ abundance.

Why Observe Capelin?

The information gathered through the Capelin Observer’s Network could eventually contribute to an understanding of the impacts of climate change, shoreline erosion and beach alteration on capelin habits, which will indirectly improve our knowledge of the general functioning of the St. Lawrence ecosystem.

Efforts to monitor capelin spawning began in 2002 on the North Shore. In 2003, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) and various partners, such as the ZIP (areas of prime concern) committees and coastal committees, developed a network of contacts to collect accurate data on the reproductive activity of this species in the estuary and Gulf of St. Lawrence.

From 2002 to 2009, the number of network observers and observations increased steadily, which helped provide an overview of the distribution of capelin spawning grounds in coastal environments. However, less information was collected during the 2010 season. During the 2011 season, the number of observers and observations increased with 66 observers reporting 184 observations. Moreover, the new observation area of Newfoundland and Labrador was added. The observations noted in this region since 1945 have also been integrated into the report. In 2012, the number of observations and observers decreased again, with 93 observations and 19 observers. No observations were reported for Newfoundland and Labrador.

Changes in the number of observers and observations records over time

This new knowledge about the spawning site locations and habits of the capelin is enhancing our understanding of this essential link in the St. Lawrence ecosystem. It also helps to improve the protection of spawning sites, particularly during the breeding and incubation period. Measures to mitigate the impacts on habitats can also be recommended when work takes place near spawning sites. The information gathered through the Capelin Observers Network may contribute to greater understanding of the impacts of human activities and climate change, including bank erosion and beach modification, on the capelin's life cycle.

Capelin Observers Network-Ecological Significance

Have You Seen Capelin Spawning?
Submit your Observation

Capelin is a key species in the northern Gulf of St. Lawrence ecosystem, since it is the main forage species (food for other species). Capelin is the essential prey of cod, but it is also part of the diet of many marine species: halibut, flounder, salmon, whales, belugas, dolphins, porpoises, seals, northern gannets and other seabirds consume large quantities of capelin. When millions of capelin come to spawn on beaches, many predators come to feed on this bountiful food source. Even Atlantic cod follow them close into the shore to feed!

Capelin eggs

Capelin during the spawning (Photo: Louise Proulx)

Capelin eggs also constitute an important food for certain fish species, including winter flounder. Capelin eggs comprise a large proportion of their diet, particularly for small flounder (14 to 34 cm long), for which capelin eggs represent more than half (59 %) of the weight of food consumed.1

Despite its ecological significance, little research has been conducted on Gulf of St. Lawrence capelin. Many important questions regarding abundance estimates, the distribution of the various populations, and the location and quality of coastal and demersal (seabed) spawning grounds remain unanswered. This lack of knowledge on the biology and ecology of capelin in the St. Lawrence makes the management of the species a challenge. More data on capelin spawning activity would provide a clearer picture of the situation.

  1. K. T. Frank and W. C. Leggett. Selective Exploitation of Capelin (Mallotus villosus) Eggs by Winter Flounder (Pseudopleuronectes americanus): Capelin Egg Mortality Rates, and Contribution of Egg Energy to the Annual Growth of Flounder. Can. J. Fish. Aquat. Sci. 41(9): 1294–1302 (1984).

Capelin Observers Network-Identification

Capelin is a small, olive-coloured, cold-water pelagic fish from the family Osmeridae (along with rainbow smelt). While all individuals are slender, males and females have different physical characteristics during the breeding season. The male has overdeveloped pectoral and anal fins which it uses to grasp the female and to dig a depression in the sea bottom in which to bury the eggs and milt. The female can be recognized by her abdomen swollen with eggs. In addition to these characteristics, capelin has a villous band on the lateral line, hence its Latin name, Mallotus villosus, meaning villous or hairy.

Male (at top) and female (at bottom) capelin

Depending on the population and the year, capelin can vary significantly in size.In the waters of the St. Lawrence, individuals averages between 13 to 20 cm in length, but can reach up to 23 cm, with males being larger than females. The capelin found along the coast of Labrador can reach lengths of nearly 30 cm. Capelin lifespan is estimated at five or six years, and the species reaches sexual maturity around the age of three.

During the spawning period, the abdomen of the female is swollen with eggs and the pectoral fins of the male lengthen and project out from the body. These distinctive characteristics appear approximately four to five weeks before the start of spawning. For the rest of the year, the differences between the two sexes disappear and it is almost impossible to distinguish between the male and female.