In Spain, the bulls run. In Nova Scotia, it’s the mackerel that ‘run.’
The appearance of mackerel along Nova Scotia’s coast is a sign that spring has actually sprung and summer is here. Their arrival causes waves of excitement for anglers and wharf-rat kids who wait for the ‘nervous water’ – a subtle choppiness that indicates these little delicacies are finally here.
Mackerel is a dusky, gorgeously striped little fish. They are open-ocean schoolers that follow the warm water up the Atlantic coast every spring, gathering in protected coves to feed on copepods and other little critters. Once fall sets in, they disappear into deeper waters in warmer climates – though no one seems sure of exactly where. Fully grown, a typical mackerel measures about 14 to 18 inches long and weighs between 1 and 2.5 pounds.
Just as soon as any local-in-the-know says, “the mackerel are running,” local wharves and breakwaters teem with ballcaps, jigs, rods and coolers.
Mackerel are an easy catch. Wiggle a jig on a bit of fishing line and something shiny – tinfoil works perfectly – over the edge of the wharf, and you’ll fill your cooler (or your schoolbag) in no time. You don’t even need a license.
Early settlers likely learned to anticipate the mackerel run from First Nations communities, who used gillnets and beach seines to gather them up. Today, inshore fishermen use a variety of methods to catch mackerel from jigging, to gillnets, handlines, and traps. A small seine fishery also operates off Cape Breton’s coast.
These days, precious little commercially caught mackerel is enjoyed locally. While some is destined for service as fishing bait for lobsters and other species, most of the rest is exported to China, Russia and Eastern Europe. Exports to the U.S. are also consistent.
Packaged mackerel became the currency of choice in the U.S. federal prison system when cigarettes were banned in 2004. Inmates barter them for goods and services, but few apparently eat them.
The lack of mackerel at local farmer’s markets, restaurants and even grocery stores remains a mystery. In Nova Scotia, mackerel trucks can sometimes be seen trawling neighbourhoods to sell their wares, but they are elusive at best. Aside from jigging for your supper, mackerel are hard to find outside of the water. Meanwhile, some of the freshest morsels are buried in vegetable gardens to be used as fertilizer or thrown about in the summer festival sport of ‘Mackerel Toss.’ It’s a real shame.
Mackerel are not only resilient and sustainably caught, they’re full of protein and healthy omega-3 oils. They’re also delicious when drizzled with a little lemon juice and grilled on the barbecue. If you’ve never tried it, hot-smoked mackerel is one of life’s more exquisite pleasures.
It is high time for some reverence for the humble mackerel. Atlantic Canada is home to some of the best quality sustainable seafood in the world, and frankly, it goes uncelebrated and under-appreciated. Whether you catch it yourself, or chase down your local mackerel truck, honour and celebrate your mackerel alongside fresh local vegetables – new potatoes and sugar snap peas, for example. Pair it with a cold glass of Tidal Bay (Nova Scotia’s very first appellation) or L’Acadie Blanc and you have the truest expression of ‘holy mackerel!’
Sadie Beaton works on marine and coastal issues with the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax and curates a small-scale fisheries blog at http://smallscales.ca.