By Ian Gatt, chairman of the Scottish Pelagic Sustainability Group

‘Sustainability’ is one of the most used buzzwords of recent times and no more so than when applied to our fisheries.

Indeed, nowadays it is the very fulcrum of Scottish and UK fisheries, given that sustainable catching benefits both fishermen and the environment, and of course, secures an incredibly important food source for generations to come.

And the consumer too is more environmentally aware than ever and wants to make informed choices when purchasing seafood. All this, in turn, has led towards a drive in recent times for certification schemes to confirm that our fisheries are sustainable and enabling us to buy seafood with confidence.

The flagship certification scheme is undoubtedly the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) standard and its ecolabel will be familiar to many. Scotland’s mackerel and herring fishermen were at the forefront of being among the first UK fisheries to attain the prestigious MSC standard around 10 years ago, thanks to an underlying determination to secure a sustainable future for these stocks.

But what does the MSC standard mean and what is involved in the certification process? Well, the first thing to make clear is that the MSC sets out the requirements of the standard, but the actual assessment and auditing of a fishery to ensure compliance is carried out by independent and fully accredited bodies. Such independent assessment is crucial and ensures confidence and transparency in the whole process.

The MSC standard is underpinned by three key criteria – sustainability of the stock, impact on the ecosystem and environment, and finally, how the fishery is managed.  For the first two, this means that the effect of fishing on both the fish stock under assessment and the wider marine environment are carefully examined to ensure there are no significant negative impacts.

The third criteria – the management of the fishery – is also carefully looked at to ensure there are effective management plans in place and that the fishery is properly regulated. This means, for example, if a certified stock was suddenly showing signs of decline, there are management measures that can be quickly triggered to respond to such a situation.

The assessment is a long and rigorous process – and once MSC certification is finally achieved, the fishery is audited every year to ensure that no issues have arisen that may impact upon any of the key criteria of the standard. Furthermore, every five years, the fishery undergoes full reassessment, and if it passes, it is then recertified.

Scotland’s pelagic fishermen are proud that their principal fisheries of North Sea herring, mackerel (as well as blue whiting) all meet the MSC standard. Carrying the MSC ecolabel can also deliver marketing advantages because of the power of the consumer. These benefits are not so much related to the end-price, but more to ensuring market access and long-term security to that market.

Scotland’s mackerel and herring fleet comprises of a relatively small number of large fishing vessels (around 25 boats), and some people might wonder how such powerful craft can fish sustainably. Well, it is important to point out these fisheries are among the most carefully regulated in the world and are managed on an international basis to ensure long-term sustainability. Large vessels enable our fleet to fish in stormy offshore areas that are inaccessible to smaller boats.

But the significant investment our skippers have made in continually upgrading their vessels has brought other tangible benefits, most notably in the quality of fish landed. This has been achieved through the installation of state-of-the-art fish holding systems, which chill the catch from seawater temperature down to only two degrees centigrade within an hour. Similarly, the pump systems used to transfer the herring and mackerel from the net to the vessel, and then once in port  to land the catch ashore, are designed in such a way to prevent damage to the fish.

The end result is that Scottish herring and mackerel is a premium quality product in large demand all over the world, as well as in the domestic market.

Both fish are also incredibly tasty and nutritious, and packed full of heart-healthy Omega 3 fatty acids and essential minerals. It is a sustainable food resource that everyone in Scotland should be proud of and one which also makes an important contribution to our national economy.