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Letter: The connection between caplin, cod and seals

Caplin rolling at Middle Cove.
Caplin rolling at Middle Cove. — Sander Meurs photo

Growing up with my grandfather, every year we would go out in the trap skiff to get a load of caplin for the gardens; no store-bought fertilizer them days. You did not have to search for caplin back then — they would land in the same beaches every year.

I returned to the fishery in 1977, spent the winters sealing — good market, good prices, could sell seal meat for canning. You could cut open a mature harp seal and fill a five-gallon bucket with caplin, not anymore. The seal hunt continued until the early ’80s, until the anti-sealing groups descended on this province like a flock of vultures.

It started in St. Anthony, where they were using helicopters to go to the ice to spray green paint on the white coats to make them valueless, and when the people tried to stop the helicopters from leaving, the Mounties stepped in and arrested the people who were trying to protect their way of life.

The main species I fished for were mainly cod and turbot. I fished for a few years around Notre Dame Bay and in the ’80s moved north, up the Labrador Coast from Black Tickle, as far north as Nain, where the fishing was good until 1989, then the two main species, cod and turbot, collapsed. There were several reasons why this happened — among them, the shrimp offshore factory freezers appeared on the scene and destroyed a lot of baby turbot, cod and other species.

Although the Department of Fisheries and Oceans denied this, the foreigners were there dragging for cod and turbot within 20 miles of the coast. We lost nets and lots of dragger twine, tangled up in our gillnets. They would come in under cover of darkness.

Then the bait or food in the ocean got scarce. I, like a lot of other fishermen, always know what the seals and the fish were eating, and as long as there was plenty of bait there was no reason for the cod or seals to move.

The main diet of cod and turbot up in the Makkovik area was shrimp, Arctic cod, caplin, and when that was scarce they would eat whatever was available, including their young — cod and turbot are cannibals. The other reason for the decline of cod and turbot was the anti-sealing groups, and weak governments in Ottawa and in this province, who shut down the seal hunt. So, the seal herds, with no predator, exploded from 2 million seals in the ’70s to 8 million or 9 million or more.

When the caplin — which can be found close to the surface or down 200 fathoms, the most important food in the ecosystem — is destroyed, cod and other groundfish, as well as seals, will eat whatever is available.

I left Makkovik one year on Nov. 23 (winter then) with no seals. The next year, seals started to come south, and continued to for several years. Two weeks earlier each year, within two or three days of the seals appearing, cod and turbot disappeared. Not only were seals eating the food of the cod and turbot, they were eating them, too. All this was documented in my logbooks, with copies forwarded to DFO. The reason for this was too many seals up north, and not enough food to sustain them.

That was the start of the collapse of the great northern cod stocks. You couldn’t get a fish to eat in Makkovik two years before a moratorium was called. When the caplin — which can be found close to the surface or down 200 fathoms, the most important food in the ecosystem — is destroyed, cod and other groundfish, as well as seals, will eat whatever is available. From then on it’s a downhill spiral, as has been proven by recent reports from the caplin and cod surveys.

Caplin is fished for roe only. Females must be of certain size, not contain redfeed, and catches must have a large percentage of females versus males in order to get a good price. Seiners cannot find that out until they are trapped and brought to the surface and if the catch is not up to standards it will be dumped back in the sea — in the majority of cases, dead. Also, DFO regulations state that if a seiner brings up more caplin than the boat can take, they are not allowed to give it to another boat but have to dump it. These caplin are not recorded. I have always said there were more dumped than was brought ashore. DFO has no way of knowing the amount of caplin destroyed in the commercial caplin fishery.

After fighting this battle for 30 years, we have accomplished nothing, and the ocean around our shores is producing approximately 10 per cent of what it could, if managed right.

We keep destroying the caplin, taking too much cod out of the ocean and allowing the greatest predator, seals, to continue to grow.

It’s time to demand more action from our politicians before it is too late.

I welcome your comments at

Capt. Wilfred Bartlett (retired)

Green Bay South

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