It was the herring, or the “silver darlings”, as they were once widely known that was the foundation of many of our fishing communities around the coast from Girvan in the south-west, right around the coast and northern isles and down to Eyemouth in the south-east.
The late 1800s and early part of the 20th century was a boom time for the herring industry, where boats crowded cheek by jowl in harbours such as Wick, Fraserburgh and Lerwick, and fisher lassies followed the movements of the fleet around the coast so as to gut and process the catch once it came ashore.
Of course, the more recent history of our pelagic (mackerel and herring) fisheries has been a difficult one, most noticeably the closure of the herring fishery in the 1970s due to overfishing. It was a traumatic time, boats were lost forever, processing factories closed, and with it the market demand for herring.
In these days, mackerel hardly registered on the radar of consumers as a desirable fish to eat. But how all this has changed and in many ways the pelagic industry is as important today as it has ever been with our herring and mackerel catch being extremely significant to Scotland’s economy. From the old wooden sailing herring Fifies that skimmed the inshore waters, the fleet of today comprises 24 large and highly sophisticated vessels, which work more exposed offshore waters around our coast.
The processing sector alone for mackerel and herring employs somewhere in the region of 2,000 people, and if you add in the ships’ crews, and the numerous employees in other support sectors, then the economic input is truly significant.
The even better news is the truly sustainable nature of our mackerel and herring fisheries. All the main pelagic stocks of interest to our fishermen are part of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) eco-label programme, confirming their status as responsible and well-managed fisheries. In recent years, work of the group has also focused on driving forward joint certification with the other like-minded nations with whom we share international pelagic fisheries.
The spur for gaining this prestigious across-the-board MSC recognition came in 2007 when pelagic fishermen and processors set up a new organisation called the Scottish Pelagic Sustainability Group (SPSG). The founding principle was to ensure the Scottish pelagic sector was at the forefront of environmental responsibility and sustainable harvesting. We were determined to be leaders in the field and show the world that Scottish caught and processed pelagic fish follows best practice procedures at all stages of the supply chain.
As well as full participation in the MSC programme, SPSG is involved in a number of other responsible fishing initiatives, including a catch-sampling scheme to ensure vessels avoid catching juvenile fish. Furthermore, SPSG sits on the MSC Stakeholder Council and is one of the lead founders of the Association of Sustainable Fisheries (ASF) – a global organisation whose members are all MSC certified. ASF was set up to help advise the MSC in the development of its work and also ensure informed debate on fisheries with environmental NGOs and other organisations.
SPSG is now working on other initiatives that will promote stock conservation and ensure a sustainable food future for Scottish pelagic fish, including increased participation in scientific monitoring programmes to provide better understanding of fish stock dynamics. We have even just appointed a chief scientific officer to co-ordinate marine science work to enhance our knowledge and management of Scottish pelagic fisheries.
Sustainability is at the very heart of what our pelagic fishermen do – not just by management regulations from the EU and national government, but also through the industry spearheading its own conservation initiatives. Indeed, our pelagic fisheries are probably the lowest carbon footprint form of protein production around.
Throw into the mix the fact that herring and mackerel taste fantastic and are full of heart-healthy omega 3 fatty acids and other essential nutrients, then it is apparent that these fish tick all the right boxes for the consumer. They are delicious fresh, but the product range is diverse and includes kippers, marinated herring, and smoked and canned mackerel.
So, if you haven’t tried mackerel or herring recently, why not make them part of your shopping basket over the coming weeks?
• Ian Gatt is secretary of the Scottish Pelagic Sustainability Group