The Capelin are Rolling in Newfoundland
People were lined up along the beach, buckets of all shapes and sizes by their feet. A flock of seagulls circled overhead. A few people braved the cold North Atlantic and waded in, nets in hand. One woman in a pretty dress and rubber boots splashed around in the thigh-high water, kitchen strainer in hand staring down at the water. Had they taken leave of their senses? Nope.
The capelin were rolling in Newfoundland.
What are capelin?
Capelin are small fish from the smelt family that live in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans. They spawn on sand and gravel shores in the summer and it’s the most dangerous time in the short life of a capelin. The males suffer an almost 100% mortality rate after spawning. Newfoundland capelin differ from their Icelandic cousins in that that like to actually jump up on shore during spawning, often stranding themselves. In fact, jumping onto land en masse to spawn is unique to the capelin, grunions, and grass puffer.
But the male capelin’s misfortune is our gain.
When do capelin roll in Newfoundland?
Every year in Newfoundland, usually in late June or early July, we get several days of cold and fog and that’s when you’ll hear people asking “Are they in yet?” When the capelin come inshore to spawn they get tossed by the waves and roll up on to the pebble beaches by the hundreds. This leads to a feeding frenzy for gulls, whales, puffins, and humans alike. Who wouldn’t want free fish when all you have to do is bend down and scoop them up?
Think of it like a pop-up festival. You never know when or where it’s going to happen but you know it’s going to be a good time.
But it doesn’t last. If you’re lucky, capelin season will continue for about a week.
While the May 24th weekend is our unofficial start to the summer season, the annual capelin rolls is really the true herald of summertime. With the capelin come the whales and puffins and all the things we associate with that short season.
There are no guaranteed times to see this phenomenon but you can follow the Twitter hashtag #CapelinRoll2020 for the most up to date reports.
What are capelin used for?
Capelin are truly a multipurpose fish.
Commercially, capelin is used for fish meal and oil industry products, but is also enjoyed as food. The flesh is agreeable in flavor, resembling herring. Capelin roe (masago) is considered a high-value product. It is also sometimes mixed with wasabi or green food coloring and wasabi flavor and sold as “wasabi caviar”.
We’re not so fancy here though and will grill, barbecue, or smoke them before serving them up whole for dinner or a snack. Everyone has their own preferred way to prepare capelin, from frying, to roasting over an open campfire, to pickling, along with the traditional method of salting and drying the fish.
Some people will also use capelin as fertilizer for their gardens.
Experiencing capelin rolling
When I heard that the capelin were rolling at Middle Cove beach I went down armed with camera rather than bucket. I wouldn’t know how to cook them so I’ll leave them to those that do. Many people consider them an early summer treat, whether they’re fresh, salted, dried, fried or barbecued. They can also be used as an effective, though smelly, fertilizer.
Down at the beach I saw people with cast nets hauling in dozens of fish at once. Some people had large hand nets and hip waders. Some people had toy nets and rubber boots overflowing with water. And there was that one woman in a dress with a kitchen strainer. They stored their fishy treasures in empty salt beef buckets, plastic shopping bags, and Tupperware. I even saw one group with an empty kitty litter pail. Hey, whatever works, right?
What I loved is how everyone was happy to share with everyone else. People with cast nets would occasionally haul in a catch and dump it on the beach for other people to snatch up by the fistfuls. There was plenty for fish for all who wanted some. I also thought it was very cool that there was a mix of cultures present. Amongst the Newfoundlanders there were a handful of Asian students and a few women wearing the hijab. There was a really light, communal feeling in the air. Funny how a few small silver fish can bring about a sense of community.
Catching capelin is a local Newfoundland food experience you won’t soon forget. If you’re ever here in late June and you notice that it’s been unseasonably cold and foggy for a few days, sidle up to a local and ask “Are they in yet?” and you might get to experience the capelin for yourself.