With delicious new season North Sea herring now appearing in supermarkets and fishmongers, it is worth reflecting on what an important fish this is to Scotland and why we should all be eating more of it.
Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to say that few other fish have played such an important role in the cultural and economic development of Scotland than the humble herring.
The herring boom of the 19th century led to the Scottish fishing industry becoming the largest in Europe and in the early years of the 20th century it is estimated there were over 10,000 boats fishing for the ‘silver darlings’ alone. It was even possible to walk from one side of Wick harbour to the other across the tightly packed boats such was the scale of this herring bonanza.
The fishery affected every part of community life, and the Scots fisher lasses, who came from fishing villages around the coast of Scotland, travelled throughout the year from Stornoway to Lerwick, to Peterhead and as far south as Yarmouth following the movement of these boats.
The air buzzed, railway lines were built and communities became established to service this rapidly expanding industry. In short, it created economic opportunity and much-need employment, as well as a valuable source of nutritious food.
However, the decades that followed was not an entirely happy one and over-exploitation led to a complete closure of the herring fishery in the late 1970s and early 1980s to enable the stock to recover.
Happily, the stock bounced back and herring are once again abundant around our shores, and even more crucially, are being fished sustainably. Indeed, the North Sea herring fishery has now held the prestigious Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) ecolabel for the last 10 years or so, confirming its status as being a responsible and well managed fishery.
The Scottish Pelagic Sustainability Group was established in 2006 with the unique vision of making the Scottish pelagic industry truly sustainable. This aim has been achieved and we are tremendously proud that all our main herring and mackerel fisheries are now part of the MSC scheme. It has been a great effort by all our herring and mackerel fishermen who have pioneered sustainability initiatives to ensure the well-being of our precious pelagic stocks.
Despite all this, herring is one of those fish that has gone a bit out of fashion with consumers, possibly because when the fishery was closed in the 1970s it went off people’s radars. But with the stock now abundant, this really is a fish that should be featuring more in our weekly shop, not least because it is so healthy to eat.
UK health experts recommend that people should try to eat two portions of fish per week, one of which should be an oily fish such as herring or mackerel. According to Seafish, the UK authority on seafood, eating two portions of fish per week brings many benefits to your health, as fish is packed with vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that keep our bodies in good working order. Increased consumption of fish helps heart health, lowers risk of diabetes and Alzheimer’s, maintains brain function, bringing positive changes to an individual’s well-being.
What’s more, this is a pretty tasty medicine! Indeed, herring has an absolutely superb flavour that is much revered by chefs and foodies. The classic Scottish dish is herring in oatmeal served with potatoes, although grilled or whole baked herring work well in a number of recipes. In the summer, they are great for the barbecue. Marinated herrings are also very popular, and smoked herring, or kippers as they are known, taste amazing and are a popular breakfast meal.
This is why I would urge people to put Scottish herring back on their menus. It is sourced locally from a sustainable and low carbon footprint fishery that sustains jobs in our fishing communities. The herring may be a relatively small fish, but it sure packs a powerful punch!
By Ian Gatt, chairman of the Scottish Pelagic Sustainability Group.