The importance of the humble herring to Scottish society and its cultural and economic development is immense, with there being evidence of herring fisheries in Scotland from Medieval times onwards.
According to James Coull in his book “The Sea Fisheries of Scotland”, the right to fish herring is specified in a charter given by King David I to the Abbey of Holyrood in 1138. However, herring is more than likely to have been caught by some Scottish coastal communities for several centuries before then, albeit on a small scale.
Of course, one of the biggest problems of herring as a tradeable commodity and as a foodstuff was that it perished quickly. The Dutch were eventually to become the masters of salt curing herring in barrels, but it was for a long time a major problem to overcome in Scotland
There are, however, indications from the earliest records that part of the catch was cured in Scotland, with mention of salt for curing ‘red herring’, and ‘herring houses’, which are most likely to have been curing or storage premises.
In effect, they were Scotland’s first herring processors, the precursor to what is now a hugely important industry that employs in the region of 2,000 people, mainly in the north-east and Shetland. The annual turnover of Scottish based companies that focus on processing only pelagic fish (herring and mackerel) is in the region of £177m. But there are many other mixed whitefish and pelagic processing companies, which means the actual financial importance of the shore-based processing sector for herring and mackerel to the Scottish economy is very much greater.
As well as herring and mackerel, our pelagic processing sector also now handles large quantities of blue whiting.
Peculiarly, given its abundance and fantastic flavour, mackerel only became important to Scotland as a commercial species from the mid-1970s when the herring stock was at low ebb. Interestingly, the total UK catch of mackerel in 1972 was 10,300 tonnes worth £480,000. In 2016, Scottish mackerel landings alone accounted for 188,000 tonnes worth £169m. How times have changed!
These figures might look quite startling, but Scotland’s pelagic fisheries today are incredibly sustainable and are carefully managed on an international basis, with scientific assessments at the very heart of the decision-making process on catch levels.
In a move to take things one stage further, Scottish pelagic processors and catchers joined forces in 2007 to create the Scottish Pelagic Sustainability Group – an organisation with the over-riding aim of ensuring our mackerel and herring fisheries are truly sustainable. Today, virtually all of our main fisheries carry the prestigious Marine Stewardship Council ecolabel that confirms their sustainability and the responsible fishing methods used.
There are currently six dedicated pelagic processing plants in Scotland, along with a number of smaller operators. As well as fresh and frozen fish, they produce kippers, smoked mackerel, canned mackerel and marinated herring. The product range is diverse and one only has to browse our supermarket shelves to realise the importance of canned mackerel, which are packed in brine, vegetable oil or a variety of sauces. Go to the chilled counter and there will be fresh fillets in season, as well as kippers (smoked herring) and hot smoked mackerel.
Much of our valuable mackerel and herring are also destined for export markets, further underlining the important role of our processing and catching sectors to the Scottish economy.
And with health experts recommending that we should be eating two portions of fish per week, one of which should be an oily fish such as herring or mackerel, it is more apparent than ever that we have a most wonderful sustainable and natural resource right here on our doorstep. All rather compelling reasons why mackerel and herring should form part of our weekly shop.
By Ian McFadden, chairman of the Scottish Pelagic Processors Association.