A FEW IMPORTANT THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT HERRING
They’re completely beautiful- bright shiny ‘silver darlings’, backs tinged bluey green: aerodynamic shape, intricate extending mouths. Wonderful!
They’re delicious: barbecued, baked, grilled or fried, fresh herring are exceptionally tasty and easy to de-bone. Then there are umpteen versions of pickled herring (Ikea sells millions) and that’s not to mention kippers and bloaters.
They’re exceptionally good for your health- heart, eyes, brain, bones, joints and just about everything else. Research shows the high level of omega oils and other nutrients in herring help your body fight all kinds of problems, including S.A.D. and depression (fish-eating communities in Japan and the Arctic show a remarkably low-level of many common disorders).
They’re sustainable, more or less. Herring stocks are relatively localised and show big fluctuations from year to year due, it’s believed, to annual variations in environment. Most populations are in good shape but North Sea herring are currently down due to a run of poor spawning years. Stocks are however very resilient and bounce back in a good year.
Human threats to herring are nevertheless multitudinous. The biggest is undoubtedly the immense catching power technology has given the modern fishing fleet which, if it targets herring, can remove many thousands of tons in short order. Herring taken by the so-called ‘industrial fishery’ are usually converted to fishmeal to feed farmed fish and livestock such as pigs and poultry with large tonnages also disappearing into pet food.
Other dangers are bottom trawling which can destroy spawning beds, as can the extensive aggregate dredging which now occurs at sea. Pollution and (potentially most damaging) climate change also have the potential to disrupt the marine food chain of which herring are an important component, being prey for predators from whales to puffins as well as for other fish such as salmon, bass and cod.
They’re historic. Fortunes were made from the silver darlings in the first half of the 20th century as the fleet fished its way down the east coast from Scotland. The Scottish ‘fisher-girls’ who came with it to gut and preserve the herring in barrels of salt enlivened the social scene of many a port. By October Lowestoft harbour would be chock full of herring drifters and many Suffolk men after seasonal employment on the land would walk or train there to sign on for the autumn herring fishing. One cottage in Middleton was built on the proceeds of one such season and bears the name of the drifter that made it possible- ‘Contrive’.
Until recently the people of coastal Suffolk ate loads of herring every autumn. Many families owned a boat or knew someone who did; or else they bought the fish from the travelling ‘fish-man’ who made the rounds of the inland villages. Many cottages had a smoke-house shed in the garden. But times have changed and food is now largely bought at the supermarket- and do they have herring? And if they did would you buy it!?
RESPONSIBLE FISH EATING
Herring are a wild food source but you can eat them with a clear conscience because being wild they pose none of the problems associated with fish farming (mainly the depletion of stocks of small fish to feed farmed fish). But you should know where they come from- preferably from small inshore drift-net fisheries, ideally with MSC certification*. Such fisheries put only light pressure on stocks compared to the big seine and purse net operations.
Also when opportunity arises speak out against industrial fishing to feed livestock- both fish and terrestrial. Such fisheries endanger sea-bird colonies, marine mammals and stocks of wild fish.
Be aware that the seas are our common inheritance and need safe-guarding from damaging development.
Support marine reserves and sensible controls on fishing: properly cared for the sea can produce quantities of food for humans and wildlife far in excess of anything fish farms ever could. But it needs protection from over-exploitation. This is, of course, in the long-term interests of fishermen too, but remember the situation is complex.
Speak out against high-tech distant-water fisheries that destroy fish stocks on which indigenous coastal people are traditionally dependent.
Even more suspect is deep-water trawling which is now able to target fish populations living in the dark and cold of great depths where individuals of these slow-growing, highly vulnerable stocks may well be older than the men catching them. Many of these fish appear boxed and wrapped under euphemistic pseudonyms.
Ask questions of those who supply you with fish be it supermarket, fishmonger, restaurant or chip shop. You might get fobbed off but the message will slowly get back down the line – that people care – and you will make a difference.
For further reading particularly see The End of the Line by Charles Clover and The Last of the Hunter Gatherers by Michael Wigan.
Good Food Growers
Reckford Farm Shop
*We support a move to gain MSC certification for the inshore Suffolk herring fishery