North Sea herring – sustainable, tasty and good for your health

With the summer North Sea herring season underway now is a great time to put this tasty and healthy-to-eat fish on the menu, but when you do so, have you ever wondered about the fishery and where the fish come from?

Affectionately known as the ‘silver darlings’ from the past when the fish was of immense economic and cultural importance to Scotland, herring has to a degree gone out of fashion in more recent times as a favoured staple.

There are, however, signs it is making a resurgence – and no wonder so, because herring has a wonderful flavour and is versatile as a foodstuff in the kitchen, ranging from plain and simple grilled or baked, to smoked herring (kippers), or marinated herring.

But what about the fishery – is it sustainable and carefully managed? The answer is a resounding yes and the recovery of the North Sea herring stock from the dark days of the 1970s has been a remarkable one. At that time, decades of overfishing led to its collapse and there was no option other than to close fishery in 1977 to allow the population to recover, with the fishery reopening once again in 1983.

There is no doubt that this lack of availability of herring led to consumers switching to other fish, leading to a big dent in the market demand, even once fishing resumed. But at least the stock was back on the straight and narrow, with the population increasing.

In a bid to take things one step further, in 2007 a cross sector of herring fishing interests involving catchers and processors set up the Scottish Pelagic Sustainability Group (SPSG) whose principal aim was to ensure its members’ fisheries became certified as sustainable under the flagship Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) scheme.

Such MSC certification was achieved for North Sea herring in 2008, with recertification having been gained since then. But what does being MSC certified mean? Well, the MSC is an international non-profit organisation that recognises and reward efforts to protect oceans and safeguard seafood supplies for the future. Each MSC certified fishery has been independently assessed on its specific impacts to wild fish populations and the ecosystems they are part of.

It is a rigorous assessment process to gain MSC certification – which is why we are so proud that North Sea herring has gained this prestigious ecolabel certification. Indeed, most of our other pelagic (mackerel and herring) fisheries are also MSC certified, as are several Scottish whitefish stocks, including North Sea cod, haddock and saithe. Research has also shown that pelagic fisheries have a much lower carbon footprint compared to most other forms of protein production.

In Scotland, most of the Scottish herring appearing in our shops over the coming weeks is caught by pelagic trawlers. Herring are midwater or surface swimming fish, so the trawls don’t touch the seabed. Herring also swim together in single species shoals, with the size of fish in each shoal being similar, making it a very clean fishery with minimal bycatch or discards.

Indeed, herring was one of the first fish that came into the EU discard ban, which is gradually being phased-in. And, of course, the fishery is carefully managed and regulated under international annual agreement, which is based on scientific advice on the state of the stock.

So, there you have it, North Sea herring is one of the most sustainable types of fish around, and is tasty and packed full of minerals, vitamins and heart healthy Omega-3 fatty acids. It is also relatively inexpensive compared to many other types of seafood.

And with the summer now upon us, Scottish North Sea herring makes a great barbecue treat and a fantastic alternative to fresh sardines. Herring is, in many ways, the ultimate ‘superfood’ – Scottish, sustainable and scrumptious!

By Ian Gatt, chairman of the Scottish Pelagic Sustainability Group.