The important role blue whiting can play in global food security

The important role blue whiting can play in global food security

This article by Ian Gatt, chairman Scottish Pelagic Sustainability Group, was published in The Scotsman on 16 February, 2023

The blue whiting is one of Scotland’s lesser-known commercial fish yet has an important value to the Scottish catching and processing sectors and moves are now underway by the Scottish industry to investigate new markets for the species to boost its economic importance further.

The blue whiting is a mysterious and abundant pelagic shoaling fish that is widely distributed in the North East Atlantic.  During early spring, the fishery occurs in deeper water to the west and north of Scotland. The Norwegians have been fishing for blue whiting since the 1970s, with Scottish boats first entering the fishery not long after. Today, the EU, Faroes, Iceland, Russia and Greenland also participate in the fishery.

Although a member of the cod family, its habit of swimming in dense shoals in midwater above the seabed means that in commercial fishery terms the blue whiting is classed as a ‘pelagic’ species and placed in the same bracket as herring and mackerel. Indeed, because the shoals are found offshore, at a time of year when the weather is often stormy, it is only the larger mackerel and herring vessels in the Scottish fleet that are capable of targeting the species. Blue whiting form large shoals at depths of around 400m along the continental shelf to the west of the British Isles.

For Scottish mackerel and herring fishermen, blue whiting forms an important annual eight-week fishery that generally starts in late February. It is particularly important for keeping our onshore pelagic processing facilities busy in what would otherwise be a quiet period when there is no mackerel and herring fishing going on.

The blue whiting is a fickle species undergoing regular natural fluctuations in abundance where peaks in juvenile recruitment occur. Such a spike has just occurred, which has resulted in the scientific advice recommending an 81% increase in the catch for 2023 compared with last year. While the catch increase is welcome, the Scottish industry takes a more pragmatic view of blue whiting management and believes that it would be much better to keep such changes in the overall quota to lower levels. Not only would this benefit the stock – especially in years when recruitment is poorer – it would also help in marketing the catch, preventing periods of gluts, which pushes the price down. Scottish fishermen and processors are very aware of the need to ensure careful catch controls and sensible sustainable management, and continually press this point during international negotiations. This viewed is shared by the government who advocated for this during the autumn 2022 fishery negotiation.

The number of participants in the fishery also creates management problems. While there is agreement on the overall total catch among the various countries involved in the fishery, there is disagreement over the share of the catch among the participants. This has resulted in recent years of the actual catch being above the recommended level, which is obviously bad for stock conservation and future sustainability. This is currently subject to protracted discussions among the coastal states – and the international participants comprising Russia and Greenland – involved in the fishery to find a resolution.

It is imperative that a fair and equitable agreement is reached during the ongoing quota sharing consultations and our view is that nations (such as the UK) with a long track record of fishing for blue whiting, as well as the presence of the fish in their own territorial waters, should be allocated larger shares than those who do not. The danger is that once you lose your share allocation of the fish, it is gone forever. And with blue whiting spending so much of their time in Scottish waters, that would be an unjustifiable knock for the Scottish seafood sector and the wider UK economy.

It is also important to maximise the value of the catch for Scotland. The two main markets are for fishmeal and oil, and for human consumption in West Africa. The Scottish catching and processing sectors are keen to develop the human consumption market further, which is why in recent months we have embarked upon discussions with the UK Department for International Trade to explore new potential export markets for blue whiting. Much of the Scottish pelagic fish processing sector is also currently investing heavily in new state-of-the-art machinery and systems, which has the potential to further take advantage of new markets for blue whiting.

With a global human population undergoing stellar growth, it is vitally important that all means of ensuring world food security are utilised and fully investigated, and which can be achieved in a sustainable manner.  We believe that Scotland’s stock of blue whiting offers that potential by supplying many nations across the globe with a nutritious and relatively cheap source of protein.