Angus MacPhail: whatever happened to the herring?

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We must be careful in our interpretation of media flurries and headlines but, from recent reports, it at least shows the possibility that the British fishing industry will, as predicted by many, once again be used as a valuable but dispensable bank of bargaining chips for the government in the Brexit negotiations.

It also brings to mind just how undervalued that industry has become over the past number of decades. Once a proud industry that was revered by the population of these shores as a provider of food, jobs, economic prosperity and food security, it is now a shadow of its former self. The industry has both shrunk greatly in size and been reduced still further in the esteem in which it is held by the general public.

There are varied, complex and numerous contributory factors that have led to this decline and the road to reversing it is not on the current horizon. The Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) and the agreements relating to it reached by politicians and inflicted on the UK fleet have done probably more damage than any other single factor.

Before being accused of being anti-EU, I would state that I see this not as a problem with the European Union, but with the deal-making by politicians of all colours over many years who have treated the fishing industry as both secondary and as Prime Minister Ted Heath reportedly said ‘expendable’ compared to other sectors while at the negotiating table.

I sympathise with those in the industry who campaigned to leave the EU in the hope of extracting the British fleet from the clutches of the CFP. This may well be fruitful, but the worry – as accentuated in the headlines of last week – is that history may repeat itself. The industry was sold down the river on the way into the EU and it may well be again on the way out.

As well as the European-related problems, there is domestic mismanagement, counter-productive regulation – including a monetised quota system that means you would need to be richer than Warren Buffett to be able to afford to enter into and operate in some sectors. Add to this the increasingly ridiculous portrayal of fishermen as planet-pillaging, eco-thiefs greedily destroying the oceans for personal gain and you have a recipe for the current state of affairs. With a swarm of celebrity chefs convincing us that it would be more ethically acceptable to eat a puppy than a North Sea cod, it is no accident that the public are becoming less supportive of the industry.

There is no doubt that overfishing has played its part in some areas at certain times, but this could have been pre-empted and dealt with much more effectively by better management.

The fall of the humble herring in this part of the world is a multi-faceted tale of tragedy. When I was in Poland for a few days last weekend, I was struck by how prevalent it still is in the diet there. In restaurants, on trains, in supermarkets and in the hearts of the people, herring is held high as a staple of their healthy diet.

For a fish that was once such a major presence in the lives of those on the West Coast, it was striking to be reminded of the lack of it nowadays. Shoals of herring once sustained a people, served as sgadan ùr (fresh herring) in summer, on its own or coated in oatmeal and, through the rest of the year, pickled or, the most common of all, as salt herring with potatoes. Nowadays, landing a box of heroin on the Railway Pier at Oban would be seen as less of a crime by the authorities than landing a box of herring without the correct quota.

I don’t have the answers as to how to unravel the tangled mess that the industry is in but what will definitely make a difference is support from the rest of the population.

Around our shores is landed some of the healthiest, tastiest, most nutritious, eco-friendly and sustainable food on the planet. Just by eating these mouth-watering fruits of the sea and showing support for those who catch it, we can all help the continued survival of this great and noble enterprise.