When it comes to eating fish, we're a pretty conservative lot.
We tend to stick to five main species: cod, haddock, tuna, prawns and salmon. But 70% of what is caught in Scotland is exported, mainly to the Mediterranean, while 80% of the fish we eat is imported.
Given that North Sea saithe is "one of ours", then, you might expect that in the era of local-is-best there would be high demand for it. But it seems that's not the case; at least, not yet. It hasn't quite shaken off its reputation of being a harbour fish fit only as bait. Its raw flesh is slightly darker than haddock or cod, so it doesn't look as good on the fish counter. Its taste and texture is softer (or, as they say in industry circles, "broader edged"). On the upside, it takes other flavours such as curry and salsa verde very well, and looks fantastic when simply pan-fried skin-on in chunks, for when cooked its large flakes resemble a paler version of salmon. I'm assured the slightly darker colour of saithe - closely related to pollock and often known as coley - has nothing to do with it having a manky diet; actually, they are fished wild in the northern North Sea up to six years after spawning, and migrate from inshore to clean deep water areas when they're about two years old. Their colour is simply down to their biological make-up, so it's not their fault. They just need a little help.
Chefs being chefs, they like anything that can increase their margins; so saithe, being cheaper than many other white fish, could soon feature on more menus in various creative guises. Similar reinventions have already occurred with cheaper cuts of meat such as ox cheek, beef skirt and lamb testicles; in some restaurants monkfish cheeks and fish livers have caught on. These days, we consumers increasingly make our food choices based not only on price but also on quality and- perhaps surprisingly for the less enlightened among you - sustainability. That's increasingly the case across the world as more of us become environmentally aware and care about the adverse effects of such issues as over-fishing (look what happened to haddock and cod; it has taken years for haddock stocks to be restored to sustainable levels, and cod is still around two years away from reaching similar levels).
Now that Scotland's main saithe fishery, operated by the Scottish Fisheries Sustainable Accreditation Group (SFSG), has been awarded Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification, it's set to get a higher profile. Pretty soon, Sainsbury's will be stocking North Sea saithe in packs with the famous blue tick.
This is quite significant for the Scottish industry, since the SFSG's network of 230 vessels last year landed virtually all of the UK-caught saithe, around 10,000 tonnes worth £10 million. Basically, since the MSC is an international non-profit organisation set up to help transform the seafood market to a sustainable basis, and is subject to objective third-party fishery assessment utilising scientific evidence, this effectively means North Sea saithe is sustainably managed.
The SFSG was set up in 2008 to take North Sea haddock through the MSC process; it was certified in 2010. Now it has its sights on MSC North Sea cod.
Careful stock management is ensuring there will be plenty more fish in the sea.
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