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What is a Capelin?

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  • Written By: Debra Durkee
  • Edited By: Daniel Lindley
  • Last Modified Date: 19 November 2016
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Capelin are small, northern ocean fish commonly caught for their highly desired roe. Schools of capelin can be found throughout the northern areas of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and are fished commercially from waters off the coasts of Norway, Iceland, and Canada. Once harvested, eggs are shipped around the world for caviar.

In Germany and Norway, the capelin is known as the lodde. Norweigan names for the fish are gender-specific: faks-lodde indicates the capelin is male, sil-lodde refers to the female. In some areas, capelin roe is also known as smelt roe, and when eggs are served in sushi, they are called masago.

Thin, slender fish, capelin have a maximum mature length of about 8 inches (about 20 cm) or less. Colors vary within the species along the spectrum of greens, and they can be anything from an almost transparent pale green to olive to bright, incandescent green. The fins and belly are smooth, and the silver to white color camouflages them from predators swimming beneath them. The roe, or eggs, of the capelin are a distinctive bright orange.

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In addition to the value for human consumption of their eggs, they are also a major prey food for larger fish such as herring and cod. They are also commonly hunted by seabirds, and in spite of their prolific breeding habits, there is always some concern about overfishing. Nearly all come from wild ocean schools, as they are not generally raised on fish farms. Most areas limit the number of fish that can be caught in a season because of the danger of overfishing, and fishing has been halted completely in some areas to let the population recover.

Variances in the color, size, and fat content of yearly harvests of capelin occur. This is largely due to the fact that the fish only mature at between three and five years of age, when they spawn. After one spawning, the majority of the fish die, adding to the difficulty of managing wild stocks.

A highly sought-after delicacy in Japan, the fish itself is typically fried, spiced, and eaten whole. One of the most desirable forms is a whole female with roe still intact. In most areas, the meat itself is not used, and the females are simply harvested for their roe. Those who do eat the fish meat find it is high in omega-3 fatty acids.

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