Neat Newfoundland History: How Capelin Became Fertilizer in NL

We are a resourceful people. Give us an island of stunted vegetation dubbed “The Rock,” and we’ll learn to turn its dirt into a soil so rich you could bag it and sell it.

We are a resourceful people. Give us an island of stunted vegetation dubbed “The Rock,” and we’ll learn to turn its dirt into a soil so rich you could bag it and sell it.

Long before we had garden centres selling A-Grade, nutrient-rich soil for growing veggies, we had a natural bounty of first-rate organic fertilizer: fish. Namely the bits of fish, or the kinds of fish, people deemed “not fit to eat.”

“Offal” is the culinary term for the organs of an animal – who knows if offal intentionally rhymes with awful. Most people don’t eat fish offal, but it’s such potent fertilizer that our ancestors used to combine it with bog to create “Moryeen” – a prized addition to gardens, known to enhance production of veggies beds.

There are references to using fish offal in gardens dating way back hundreds of years, including a news clipping from the 1860s about debates in the NL House of Assembly as to whether or not it was wasteful for people to use capelin as fertilizer in their gardens, since capelin is such prized bait.

Whole fish like capelin, or fish guts left behind after filleting bigger fish were used to amend bad soil into super soil. For example, cod stomachs and intestinal tracts, known in some bays as “gulvins,” were commonly kept to fertilize gardens.

The reason Capelin became common fertilizer in our province is because people generally had an abundance of cod to eat, and preferred cod as a food over capelin, so capelin was deemed relatively “not fit to eat” by many, and used instead as fertilizer. Also, after capelin roll on a beach, the beach is strewn with dead fish that really aren’t  fit to eat by the time they’re collected, but they still make for perfectly good and totally free fertilizer.

Much of what we are putting in our soil nowadays is a combination of synthetic compounds and chemicals. But to this day, fish fertilizers remain a cheaper, and more organic way to provide nutrients to the soil.

Fish fertilizers also have slower release rates of nutrients than other types of fertilizer, so they do not have to be applied as often. They’re the fertilizer than keeps on giving, without ever “burning” your plants by over-fertilizing.

Using capelin as fertilizer can have a bad rep, but the fish are buried in the soil so the smell is contained. It’s also good practice to bury the capelin in the soil to prevent unwanted rodents and beetles. And, to feed the sub-surface, soil-dwelling microbes that love to gorge on organic matter. In so doing, they enhance your soil.

Generally, people use their “junk capelin” as fertilizer, like all the ones still laying dead on a beach after a roll, or the scraps of the ones eaten (heads, tails, roe, etc). It’s common practice to give them a little grinding in a blender before burying the mess, but plenty of folks just bury the fish whole.

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