Herring are a pelagic fish, that is they swim in huge shoals. This characteristic plays a huge part in their history, even the name herring, from the German word heer meaning an army, reflects the vast shoals they in which they swim. The trouble with these shoals is that they appear and disappear on a whim. During the 13th and 14th centuries, Skâne (then in Denmark, now part of Southern Sweden) was the capital of herring until the shoals disappeared, quite suddenly, around the beginning of the 15th century and reappeared in the North Sea. The shoal tended to migrate around the British Isles in a south-westerly direction, and Scottish “Herring Girls” who had developed a tremendous speed and skill in cleaning and salting the fish, followed the shoal to provide their services.
The traditional way of eating herring fresh is rolled in oatmeal however when the supply of fresh fish is so sporadic preservation is essential. Whilst the Baltic countries mainly preserve their herring by sousing in vinegar, Britain preferred smoking and kippers became a staple of our breakfast diet. Our oldest form of smoked herring was the Red Herring, yes it did exist, and was cold smoked, un-gutted, until very hard and dry. Bloaters replaced the Red Herring, using a lighter cure and smoking them for only a short time so that they remained soft. Bloaters can still be found and are considered something of a delicacy because they need to be eaten with 2 or 3 days. Britain did also use an old Dutch cure, applied to the un-gutted fish before they are hot-smoked, a faster process than cold smoking, which also cooks the fish. Herring prepared by this method are called Buckling, but I have never seen them for sale.
Between 1950 and 1960 the herring catch in the North Sea fell by half, and this was not a result of natural movement of the shoal but over-fishing. It spelt the end of many of the herring fisheries and our consumption of Kippers obviously fell too. Until very recently, when it appears kippers are enjoying a revival in popularity with every supermarket reporting an increase in sales ranging from 12% (Waitrose) to 79% (Sainsbury’s Fresh Fish Counter).
Stocks of herring in the North Sea are now back at a sustainable level and rated as a “Fish to Eat” by the Marine Conservation Society. They are high in Omega 3, so very good for our health, at least one portion of oily fish per person per week is recommended by the NHS. The third, and perhaps most significant factor in the revival of the kipper’s popularity, is that smoking prolongs the fish’s shelf life. Preserving, something that was a necessity for these pelagic fish, has allowed people to buy fish miles from the sea even when they have no fishmonger at hand.
Restaurants too are now frequently including cured fish on their menus. Smoked haddock has enjoyed a leap in popularity at least to that of kippers. Sharing plates are popular and fish is now often replacing meat charcuterie as an option. Some chefs are keen to develop their own methods of curing and the release in 2019 of The Whole Fish Cookbook shows the level of innovation that is being achieved and that the nose-to-tail principle need not be restricted to meat.
So, what is the future for herring fishing in the UK? Although we leave the EU on 31st January we immediately begin a transition period when we have to obey the Common Fisheries Policy again. Boris Johnson has promised that this transition will not be extended into 2021 and if he is good to his word, and does not barter away our fishing rights as part of a larger deal, we will then have a substantially larger share of the herring stocks in the North Sea – 81% compared to the measly 9% we are currently allocated under EU quota systems.¹
Denmark, who have the lion’s share of the 91% of North Sea herring under current EU arrangements, are demanding that we give them 60% of the fish as their rice for allowing the UK a trade deal with the EU. The Danes catch 221,000 tons of herring in British waters at the moment, which, when processed, would have a value of around £400 million. We are, of course, unlikely to eat all of this ourselves, but our fishermen want to grant access only on an annual basis and then in exchange for reciprocal fishing opportunities in areas outside our own waters.
The Danes are not the only country demanding continued fishing rights in our waters, but I use them here as an example here because I am writing about herring. Actually, there is also some 60,000 tons of West Coast mackerel, worth around £240 million processed, that could also be repatriated predominantly from the Danes and their Sandeel vessels strip, on average, around 200,000 tons of sandeels from the North Sea annually to use as pig feed or to burn in their power stations. This latter catch we would like to ban entirely as sandeels form the natural base of the marine food chain.
I recently attended the annual Herring Festival in Clovelly, north Devon. This pretty fishing village, famed for its steep cobble street, is now mainly just a tourist destination. Yet there are still some fishing for herring and who would like to see a sustainable fishery revived here. Their story is told via http://www.boatstories.co.uk/fishing-for-clovelly-herring.html and just as described here, on the day before I attended the festival, seals had stolen the catch from the nets so a second, early morning, catch had to be made.
This is small-scale fishing, but when Radio 2 DJ Sara Cox recently asked listeners what delicacy they missed from their hometown it was heartening to hear “baked herrings from Whitby” and “Arbroath Smokies hot off the smoker eaten on the harbour wall” amongst the replies. Seems that these regional specialities haven’t been forgotten at all but are just waiting to be revived on a larger scale.
¹ Statistics from https://ffl.org.uk/