Photo of
May 29, 2013
[Peterhead is Europe's largest white fish market][1]
Peterhead is Europe’s largest white fish market

Seafood Scotland are sponsoring the Best Fish Restaurant category at the Scottish Restaurant Awards. The organisation took the 5pm Restaurant blog up to Peterhead to see the Scottish seafood industry in action.

It is 7am in the fish market at Peterhead and almost 5000 iced boxes of neatly packed, just landed Scottish fish are sitting in rows waiting to be bought and transported all over the UK, Europe and beyond. Most of Scotland is perhaps contemplating the day’s first cup of tea but here, under the strip lights of the market, it is all hands on deck as skippers, buyers and auctioneers inspect the fish and bid for the boxes before the unfortunately named lumpers or porters cart the purchases off to waiting refrigerated lorries.

[A lumper or porter hauls the boxes of fish around the market][5]
A lumper or porter hauls the boxes of fish around the market

Between the shouts of the salesmen and the banging of the boxes, it is a noisy environment; not to mention a busy one with the lumpers racking and packing the boxes as soon as the sales scrum moves on. While my eyes and ears take a battering, my nose doesn’t. The fish is far too fresh to smell of very much at all. Instead, there is a just briny tang in the air.

Firm flesh

Peterhead is not just Scotland’s largest white fish market. It is the biggest in Europe and Scottish fish sold at the Aberdeenshire port are prized for their quality. One buyer, Will Clark of Wilsea, explains that he prefers to buy cod from the deep North Sea over cod caught from the shallower waters off the Danish coast. The Scottish cod has the firmer flesh which consumers prefer and it fetches a higher price.

When it comes to quality, there is more to it than which part of the sea the fish were caught in. The majority of the fish on sale here are washed, graded, gutted and packed at sea within two hours of being hauled on board. The way in which they are handled during this process will affect the quality of what ends up on your restaurant plate, chip wrapper or dinner table. The fish landed at Peterhead are recognised internationally as being well looked after: gutted precisely and cleanly, iced properly and well packed.

[Traders at Peterhead market do the numbers][6]
Traders at Peterhead market do the numbers

Wide diversity of species

The sheer diversity of species for sale may come as a surprise. Both sweet hake and the flatfish megrim are hugely popular in Spain but, although both are abundant in Scottish waters, they tend to be overlooked by UK consumers. Boxes of them are snapped up by buyers and transported to the Continent when we could be tucking into them here.

Laid out on the concrete floor of the market, there are also boxes packed with what the fishermen refer to as black and white fish. Respectively, these are saithe, a member of the cod family, and whiting which is used in UK chippies but mainly exported to France and Ireland. There are also plenty of haddock – all with a distinguishing thumbprint mark on their sides – along with big, meaty monkfish. Most eye-catching of them all is the catfish whose frankly scary looking head explains its other name: the seawolf.

[Peterhead market in full flow][7]
Peterhead market in full flow

The largest haul is what the fishermen call green or cod. The name refers to their distinctive colour. In the North Sea, they are perhaps the one species likely to most stir the emotions. Head to Peterhead today and the fishermen will happily tell you that they have never seen more green in the sea than there are now. This wasn’t always the case.

Cod stocks recover

After coming close to collapse in the early 2000s, a number of methods were introduced to help North Sea cod stocks recover. Fishing gear was improved; quotas were reduced, as were the number of days vessels could spend at sea, and the entire industry was more tightly regulated. Possibly the most effective measure was, that between 2000 and 2010, over 40% of the Scottish whitefish fleet was decommissioned.

Since 2007, cod stocks have been on the rise and seem to be recovering steadily – a fact that Scottish fishermen are understandably keen to underline. The last decade has not been an easy one for them but, several times during my Peterhead visit, I would hear how things have changed for the better and the recovery in cod stocks is hailed as a Scottish success story.

Valuable Scottish industry

If they are looking to trumpet success stories about Scotland’s fishing industry, they could also point to the fact that there are nine Scottish fisheries certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council including North Sea herring and haddock as well as Shetland scallops. MSC certification helps what is a valuable trade for Scotland. In 2011, some £480 million of fish was landed and sold from Scotland.

[North Sea haddock is MSC certified][8]
North Sea haddock is MSC certified

By value, around a third of that was whitefish, such as the species discussed above. These are also called demersal fish as they live on or close to the sea bed. Another third was shellfish such as langoustines or crab. The final third is made up of pelagic fish such as herring and mackerel which swim in vast shoals close to the surface of the sea.

A fisherman’s life?

So what’s it like to actually fish out of Peterhead? We’ll tell you later on this week when we go board a couple of whitefish boats and speak to the fishermen about earning a living on the high seas.