Capelin Scull: Roll With It

Capelin, Sandy Cove Beach, Newfoundland

The capelin (or caplin)1 are rolling.
Early every summer giant schools of these tiny fish move toward the coast of Newfoundland and throw themselves up on to the shore. It's a spectacular natural event.  The sheer number of fish moving together and wriggling-up on shore is a sight to behold (and anyone visiting at the time should check it out).

We call it capelin scull and it lives-up to its Goth-y name -- most of the capelin die.

So, why do the capelin beach themselves? Like many life's crazy decisions, they do it for love.  Well, maybe not love. I don't knowI'm no expert on the vagaries of piscine passion butthey seem to do it to mate. The female capelin come ashore to release their eggs on sandy and gravel beaches. The male capelin come to fertilize them. They die. It's the circle of life.2

Rolling Capelin
(a riff on Sex on the Beach)

If you're 19+and inclined to responsibly imbibe a local beverage, considering trying the Rolling Capelin. It's a delicious sweet and fruity drink made with Newfoundland Iceberg Vodka and locally-made partridgeberry syrup.

40ml Iceberg Vodka
20ml Peach Schnapps
40ml Orange Juice
20ml Dark Tickle Partridgeberry Syrup

Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass. Strain into an ice-filled glass. You're straining to remove the partridgeberry bits. If you like a higher-fiber beverage, feel free to skip this step. If you're so inclined, garnish with an orange slice.

As I write this, I'm surprised by all the misty capelin-coloured memories3 I have.  Some of my favourite childhood beach memories involve watching the capelin roll on Eastport Beach. It was fun to swim and run among the schools, and scoop them up. I remember trying to keep them alive in buckets so I could raise my very own pet capelin.  I thought it would be so much cooler than a sea monkey. And it probably would have been, if they hadn't kept dying.  9-year-old me didn't realize a salt-beef bucket of tepid saltwater didn't a happy capelin make.

Capelin on the Beach
I also remember my grandparents collecting the dead capelin from the beach and burying them in their potato grounds. It was a fairly common practice... and it made good sense. The fish were just lying on the beach and, if they were folded into the soil, they made for a nutrient-rich (and totally organic) supplement for the garden. The remnants of the scull could be turned into bigger, better potatoes that would feed the family all winter.  It sometimes appalls me how self-sufficient I am not. I come from stock that eked a living from barren rock and frigid ocean.

5 Cool Things About NL Capelin

1. Capelin are not a Newfoundland-thing. They are common in northern Atlantic and Pacific.  They get around too. A tagging program in Newfoundland saw a fish get tagged in Harbour Grace and recovered in St. Anthony 8 days later.

2. The Canadian capelin fishery developed largely because of foreign interest in the species.   Newfoundland Capelin eggs (or roe) were a big deal in Japan and much of the fishery was geared toward this market.

3. Shortly after Newfoundland joined Canada there was an attempt to popularize 'Newfoundland Canned Capelin'. Markets were developed in the U.S. and Canada, with the goal of competing against sardines and canned herring, but labor costs and difficulty automating the process brought the dream to an end.

4. It's tough being a capelin -- everyone wants a piece of you. Capelin are a key species in the North Atlantic food web and are food for cod, flatfish, seabirds, seals and whales (to name but a few).

5. According to the Canadian Geographical Names Database there are many, many bays, coves, ponds, inlets, etc in Newfoundland named for capelin. A quick search of the database yields over 50 results. In case there was any doubt, we are serious about these little fish.

As a teen, capelin meant money. When the fish were brought to the fishplants, a lot of my friends were hired to fold boxes to ship them. It meant long shifts, late nights and a nice infusion of cash for the summer vacation. I didn't ever have a job in the fish plant. My first summer job was keeping the beaches on the Eastport Peninsula clean, which meant shovelling kelp and burying capelin. It was hard work and about as pleasant as it sounds.  The important thing was it paid, and it prepared me for better paying summer jobs... like scraping up roadkill. What can I say, it's been a glamorous life.

For all the capelin scull memories, I hadn't been to the beach when the capelin were rolling in years. I fixed that this year. I took my camera equipment, my niece and nephew and headed to Capelin Gulch, on the far end of Sandy Cove Beach on the Eastport Peninsula.

The weather was bleak but that was no surprise. The weather is predictably wet and miserable when the capelin roll. It happens often enough that Dictionary of Newfoundland English has an entry for 'capelin-scull weather' - it is literally defined as wet and miserable weather. I grew up 'knowing' that, until the capelin rolled, it was going to be sweaters rather than shorts.  While my niece and nephew eventually retreated to the car, it didn't dampen my spirits, I charged forth with my cameras and recorded the event.  I didn't plan particularly well -- I wound up knee-deep in sea water with jeans and sneakers on. 

It made for a squidgy4 drive home.  
Worth it though.

There was a gentleman on the beach while I was filming.  He had a net and bucket and was collecting fish. He probably thought I was crazy. He was probably not completely wrong.

He was busy doing something productive.
I was, for all intents and purposes, playing.

It never occurred to me to actually collect the capelin for food. As much as, I enjoy eating an occasional capelin -- roasted, they are a perfect fireside treat -- I've never contemplated getting them myself. My grandfather used to salt and dry them and he'd hook me up. I remember watching him when I was a kid but I don't really know the process. It's one of those things I didn't have much interest in knowing when there was someone, right there, who could teach me. Sigh, it all goes by too quickly...

Then it's just capelin-coloured memories

1. In some parts of Newfoundland, capelin is spelled without the 'e.' I think we all pronounce it with an 'e'?
2. Disney is set to shoot scenes for Peter Pan and Wendy on this coast, maybe the time is right to pitch The Capelin King. Maybe not. Idk
3. Who else is going to give you Barbra Streisand capelin references? Nobody, that's who.
4. It's a weird word but it feels right. Onomatopoeia.


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