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The resurgence of kippers: the decline and revival of the beloved British breakfast fish.


George West, a fifth-generation fisherman from Gardenstown on the coast of Aberdeenshire, does not mind the smell of his house or the bones in his kippers. He sees them as a nostalgic part of British tradition. Despite his wife’s dislike for the smell, West enjoys cooking his kippers on the barbecue and serving them with new potatoes and butter.

At the age of 65, West started his seafaring journey at the young age of 16. He has fond memories of enjoying freshly caught herring on his family’s boat, Courage. However, his fishing career came to a halt in 1977 when herring populations drastically declined, leading to the sudden shutdown of the industry. West recalls this time as a source of concern.

For many years, kippers, which are herring that have been preserved through salting and cold-smoking, were a readily available and healthy source of food. This was not limited to just the British, as they were also exported to Germany, Russia, and the Baltic states. As the UK railway system grew in the 1840s, the production of kippers became a profitable industry. By smoking the herring, they could stay fresh long enough to be transported to inland cities without being overly salty, which was the traditional method of preserving fish.

During the first half of the 20th century, herring was highly prized as a breakfast delicacy among hunters and fishermen, and even enjoyed by Queen Elizabeth II. It ranked second only to cod as Britain’s most beloved fish.

Three fish cooking on a barbecue alongside some red peppers and mushrooms on skewers.

However, in the 1970s, the number of herring drastically decreased due to overfishing. This led to the decline of the herring industry, causing kippers to no longer be available. According to Erin Priddle, the regional director for the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) in northern Europe, this resulted in numerous fisheries and herring processors going bankrupt and thousands of jobs being lost.

Years after, these sought-after silver fish are experiencing a resurgence. Renowned chefs like Cyrus Todiwala, Rick Stein, and Richard Corrigan are reintroducing herring and kippers to diners. Environmentally-friendly kippers can now be found in popular supermarkets like Tesco, Aldi, and Asda. Sales of herring with the MSC label have increased by over 25% in recent years, with more than 2 million tins and packets sold last year – a significant rise from five years ago.

According to Mitch Tonks, the chef executive of Rockfish restaurants, herrings are a deliciously tasty fish that have been overlooked. He often incorporates them into dishes at his restaurants. He also believes that there is no better breakfast than a well-prepared kipper, as long as it is split and served with plenty of butter.

The crew of a Yarmouth herring boat pull in their catch on a stormy North Sea in the 1930s.

According to Mike Warner, a fishmonger and seafood consultant from Suffolk, the herring has a significant background in terms of its heritage, history, and culture. Not only is it highly beneficial for one’s health, being rich in omega-3, vitamin B12, and vitamin D, but it is also an affordable source of wild protein. However, the delicacy of herring has been lost on many people, with kippers in particular being viewed as outdated.

Due to the closure of the herring fisheries in 1977, at the same time as the rise of “modern” cooking, there was a shift towards convenience foods. This was marked by the popularity of items such as Angel Delight and frozen fish fingers. According to Linda Fitzpatrick, head curator at the Scottish Fisheries Museum in Fife, this led to a change in eating habits where families could easily heat up pre-packaged fish and add ketchup for a quick meal.

The demand for challenging kippers decreased and there were concerns about the quality. According to Mike Smylie, a historian specializing in maritime history, lower-grade kippers were being made by adding coloring to speed up the smoking process, resulting in a decrease in quality. Smylie currently operates Kipperland, a traveling smokehouse and exhibit that hopes to revive the British interest in freshly smoked kippers, which can be enjoyed in various ways such as in a salad, as paté, or in kedgeree.

Mike Smylie smokes fish in his traditional smokehouse by the harbour at Clovelly, Devon.

According to Smylie, when smoked correctly, these fish have a rich and robust flavor that is both smoky and salty. They are also packed with beneficial fish oils, particularly omega-3 which is recognized for its health benefits. It is important to note that plant-based sources of omega-3 do not convert in the body in the same manner as fish sources.

Changes in consumer interest for herring have been a long-standing occurrence. During the outbreak of World War I, the fishing industry was impacted as workers were drafted into military service, leading to a decline in the export market. As a response, the Herring Industry Board was established in 1935 to promote the nutritional benefits of herring, even enlisting celebrity endorsements such as actress Merle Oberon who graced the cover of their recipe book with the quote: “Don’t you think herrings are delicious?”

The increase in popularity of fish was aided by the transition from traditional “drift nets” to larger and more effective commercial pelagic trawlers, like the Courage owned by the West family. With the rise of industrialization, ice production, and trawling, white fish became a more accessible catch and could be brought to market faster. This shift in fishing methods marked a turning point in the 1970s, according to Fitzpatrick.

West explains that there was a high demand for fish due to boats arriving from various places such as Denmark, Holland, Norway, and even the Faroe Islands. This put a lot of strain on the available stock. Additionally, the size of vessels had increased and newer fishing methods, like purse seine nets and pair trawls, were more effective than the traditional drift nets. These methods allowed for the capture of entire schools of fish at once.

Juvenile herring were also providing for the increasing demand in pet food and fish meal industries. “There were multiple forces at play,” explains Fitzpatrick.

Herring Industry Board recipe booklets from 1935 to 1938, including the one featuring the Hollywood star Merle Oberon.

In response to declining fish populations, the UK government implemented a fishing ban in 1977 to give North Sea stocks time to recover. When fishing resumed in 1983, West was amazed by the abundance of herring. He noted that they were big, healthy, and plentiful, representing a significant turnaround from previous years.

However, at that point, the need for the fish had decreased. According to George Clark, the UK director for the MSC, the world’s leading certification program for fisheries, if a fish is not being caught for more than five years and is not being sold in the market, consumers will turn to other options. The decline of herring can be attributed not only to overfishing, but also to the cultural perception and taste preferences surrounding the product.

Herring was outmaneuvered by a different type of greasy fish. “All of a sudden, we noticed the ocean was teeming with mackerel, and it was significantly more profitable to market than herring,” West recounts.

British fishers still consider mackerel to be a valuable catch, despite its lack of sustainability and loss of MSC certification in 2019 due to overfishing.

“Climate change has resulted in changes in the stock, allowing for other countries to have more opportunities for fishing. As a result, total allowable catches were 40% higher than the scientifically recommended amount. However, the states fishing on this stock are unable to come to an agreement on catches that align with scientific recommendations,” explains Clark. “This is the main reason why the stock is no longer MSC certified.”

In recent years, several herring populations have become sustainable. In 2008, the North Sea herring fishery was certified by MSC as meeting sustainability standards, and this certification was renewed in 2022. The majority of kippers in Britain are sourced from healthy North Sea herring stocks, although traditionally they were made from slightly larger Atlanto-Scandian (AS) herring. However, this fishery lost its MSC certification in 2020 due to disagreements among fishing nations about shared quotas and a decrease in stocks from 7 million tonnes in 2008 to 3.7 million tonnes in 2022, according to MSC.

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Boris Johnson holding up a kipper.

According to Priddle, it is important to learn from past events where excessive fishing and poor management caused the AS herring population to decline in the 1960s. This led to a five-year ban on fishing in order for the population to replenish. Priddle emphasizes the need for coordinated management in order to maintain sustainable levels of total quotas.

On the other hand, the stocks for North Sea herring are doing well, so the 2024 quotas will be raised by 28.3%. In September, Alexander, the son of George West, and his nephew Matthew caught 3,000 tonnes of herring from their 70-meter boat, Resolute. This is approximately half of what George and his brother David were allowed to catch in a whole year during the 1990s.

It makes West feel cautiously optimistic about the future, but he remains wary. “Herring are very resilient, but it’s not just fishing – there are so many factors that affect them,” he says, including the abundance of predators such as cod, or the plankton on which herring feed, both of which are affected by the climate crisis.

The speaker acknowledges that there are many unpredictable factors that we cannot control, but assures that we will not return to the state we were in during the 1970s. The fishing industry is now more effectively managed, with strict monitoring and regulations in place. These regulations cover various aspects such as the size of trawl nets and the maximum allowed catch, ensuring that quotas are adjusted accordingly. The speaker emphasizes the importance of sustainable fishing practices to preserve the industry for future generations.

“In the early 1900s, there was a widespread belief that fishing the seas without limit would have little impact,” Clark states. “However, the herring crash of the 1970s proved otherwise.”

Undated postcard featuring a sepia photograph of a line of Scottish women packing herring into barrels.

“Herring is listed on the menu.”

Kippers that have been smoked are cut in half lengthwise and gutted, then soaked in brine and smoked using oak wood chips for approximately 16 hours. They are typically consumed as a breakfast food.

In the early 1900s, fish processors discovered that smoking fish for a shorter period of time resulted in higher moisture content and weight, making them more valuable. To further enhance their appearance, they also began using coal tar to dye the fish brown, giving them a similar look to traditional kippers.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, the majority of herring was preserved by salting and curing in barrels for the purpose of export.

Great Yarmouth became well-known for preserving and smoking entire herring for a short period of time in order to extend its shelf life.

Whole, smoked herring with its guts intact, resulting in a strong, gamey flavor.

Oatmeal-coated herring is a classic Scottish dish where fillets are rolled in oats and lightly fried.

Marinated in vinegar, Rollmops Herring fillets are rolled up with sliced onions and secured with wooden sticks.

Herring fillets soaked in a brine of salt, vinegar, and sugar. Additional ingredients like herbs, onions, bay leaves, and juniper berries can be added to the marinade.

Source: theguardian.com