03/23/2018 05:29 EDT | Updated 03/23/2018 10:02 EDT

Conservation group concerned about decline in capelin abundance in N.L.

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — A national conservation organization is expressing concerns about what it says is a 70 per cent decline in capelin abundance over the last two years in Newfoundland and Labrador.

A news release from WWF Canada says that while environmental factors are driving the decline, it cannot rule out fishing as another factor.

It says due to limitations with its surveys, the Fisheries Department cannot accurately estimate the total number of capelin in the water, and therefore cannot conclude with certainty the impact fishing has had on the stock.

The organization is urging the department to consult Indigenous and other local groups during the assessment process, and to adopt a precautionary approach in managing the capelin fishery.

It says capelin play an important role in the culture, history and economy of Newfoundland and Labrador, and are the primary prey in the province's marine ecosystem.

The fish convert energy in zooplankton into a healthy and accessible food source for a variety of species, including Atlantic cod, seabirds and even whales.

WWF Canada says their abundance is essential to the continued recovery of cod.