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PETER FROST licks his lips at the news that outstanding conservation work has meant his beloved nosh has, once again, become a regular culinary delight.

Today the most sustainable fish from British waters is the herring (Clupea harengus). That’s the news from the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), the international organisation established to promote sustainable fishing and safeguard future seafood supplies.

It is an amazing and heart warming bit of news, especially for people who like me love a breakfast kipper or a bismark herring or rollmop for my tea. It is also good news for the health of the nation — herring is an oily fish packed with omega oils.

Our North Sea herring spawn near the coast in small and well defined areas where the seabed consists of gravel and small stones. The eggs are attached to the gravel and hatch after about three weeks depending on temperature.

Herring stocks are central to the North Sea ecosystem both as predator and as prey. Herring feeds mainly on plankton and juvenile fish. In turn they are an important part of the food chain for cod, saithe, whiting, mackerel as well as sea birds and marine mammals.

The history of the British herring industry is a roller coaster of glut and famine. The very name of the fish that once existed in unbelievable abundance comes from the Old German for “multitude.” No wonder our fisherfolk named the easy to catch and profitable herring the silver darlings.

At the peak of the herring boom, Britain exported a quarter of a million tons a year.

Barrels

They were exported in many forms. Most common were barrels of herrings packed in salt. They would go to Germany, Russia and Eastern Europe as well as to British and particularly Scottish emigrants in all corners of the Empire.

pickled herring

At home fresh herring was popular, healthy and relatively cheap while smoke houses in places like Craster, Great Yarmouth, Fleetwood and the Isle of Man produced kippers, bloaters and good red herrings for the breakfast tables of the nation.

kippers-smoking

Ports from Lerwick in Shetland to Yarmouth on the Norfolk coast had vast herring fleets and as the shoals of herring moved south over the season the fleets followed them down the east coast.

It was said that when the herring fleet was in port you could walk right across huge harbours on the decks of the drifters.

Drifters in port

Following the fleets came the large army of Scottish women many from Shetland and the north Scottish ports, who travelled south each season to gut and pack the herring in barrels of salt.

The women, some as young as 15, travelled throughout the season for generations from Stornoway, Lerwick and Peterhead as far south as Yarmouth and Lowestoft. Herring brought them hard work but also adventure, escape from home and a chance at an independent income.

Herring Gilrs

In the early 19th century, the British government subsidised the catches of herring boats larger than 60 tons and paid a bounty on all herring sold abroad.

The coming of the railways, as a means of faster transport, gave an opportunity to fishermen to deliver their catches to markets much more quickly than in the past. Now fresh rather than preserved fish became a major part of inland town and industrial city diets.

At the industry’s peak there were as many as 30,000 vessels involved in herring fishing off the east coast, not to mention others in the Irish Sea. They were joined by 10,000 boats from all over Europe.

1952-Drifter-KY21

At the peak of the herring boom in 1907, 2.5 million barrels of fish were cured and exported.

For the poorer people of Britain in the 19th and early 20th century, herring was absolutely crucial — tens of thousands of jobs and the nutrition of millions were dependent on the fish.

That level of fishing would, of course, in time prove unsustainable as overfishing reduced stocks. The silver darlings became increasingly harder to find and catch.

WWI interrupted the growth of the industry with many fishermen becoming the backbone of the Royal Naval Reserve. After the war they returned to a declining industry, which was further interrupted by WWII in 1939.

By 1970 continuing overfishing saw the almost total collapse of the British North Sea herring fishery and for four years it was banned completely.

Now after many years of tight controls, the silver darlings seem at last to be returning. A small fishery based in Hastings in East Sussex has been certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council for 10 years.

Other herring fisheries around Britain and Ireland have recently been MSC-certified and more are in the pipeline.

Frosty can again enjoy a guilt-free kipper or even occasionally a gamey bloater, stronger than a kipper and smoked with all its innards intact.

Kippers

German budget supermarkets and even Ikea often offer herring fillets in exotic pickles. They can be delicious.

So, however you enjoy your silver darling, just make sure you check the packs for that important MSC label.

First published in the Morning Star 1 April 2016. 

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