Quality and sustainability at heart of Scottish pelagic processing operation

Quality and sustainability at heart of Scottish pelagic processing operation

Quality is close to the heart of John Angus, Senior Sales Manager at Pelagia Shetland Ltd, and this dedication by him and the rest of the team to ensure best practice procedures in handling pelagic fish has resulted in discerning Japanese buyers now procuring mackerel on a regular basis from the processing facility.

Combined mackerel exports from all Scottish processors to Japan have more than doubled in both volume and value between 2021 and 2022, underlining that this is a market with considerable potential for expansion.

Pelagia Shetland is playing its part in this growth and with landings of mackerel and herring into the processing facility set to increase over the coming years, the company will be looking to further develop the Japanese and other key markets.

John Angus says: “Maintaining the highest quality standards is key for us as we move forward, which is why we have invested in modern processing machinery and are embarking on constructing a major new cold store facility, which will double our capacity.”

Recent work by Lerwick Port Authority has reclaimed approximately 4,000 square metres of new industrial land at Arlanda East, adjacent to Pelagia Shetland’s factory, where the new cold store will be built, with construction due to start later this year.  The land reclamation part of the project received £450,759 in grant from the UK Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs under round two of its UK Seafood Fund Infrastructure Scheme, with funding of over £150,250 from the Port Authority.

“The great advantage here in Shetland is that we lie adjacent to some of the best mackerel and herring fishing grounds in the world, which means that boats only have to sail a short distance to land their catches,” says John. “This obviously makes economic sense for them, and from our perspective, it means that we are taking in the freshest and highest quality mackerel and herring. An added benefit is that because Lerwick is the closest fishing port to these rich grounds, there are less carbon emissions from the vessels landing to us.”

Charisma at Lerwick

Paul Ratter, Quality Control Manager, oversees the quality and hygiene operation at the facility. The fish enter the factory from an adjacent landing quay at about -1.5°C, and great care is taken to move the fish quickly through the process to freeze as quickly as possible. Quality and weight checks are continuously taken throughout the production to achieve a consistent product with as little variation as possible. Full traceability is demonstrated right back to where the fish were caught for each product. The fish are frozen whole and packed into 20kg cartons.

“It is an operation we take great pride in and we have a fantastic team of people working here,” says Paul.

As well as Japan, key markets for mackerel include other parts of the Far East and in eastern Europe, including Ukraine, Romania, and Bulgaria. The UK market is also important where most of the fish goes onward for secondary processing, including smoking and canning.  To transport the frozen fish to export markets, reefer vessels berth at the quayside by the factory, for onward carriage to other distribution cold storage hubs in places such as Lithuania and the Netherlands.

The main periods for handling mackerel catches from Scottish vessels are in the early part of the year in January and February, and then from the middle of October to the middle of November. If a fishing access agreement is reached with Norway for UK waters, as happened last year, Norwegian boats land into the facility from the middle of September to early October.

For herring, the main landing period is August, and with there being a significant increase in the MSC certified North Sea herring quota for 2024, the coming season promises to be a busy one.  Most of the herring is filleted and mainly destined for markets in Germany and Poland. Herring roe is also produced, which is in strong demand in Japan, with the company having invested in specialised roe extraction equipment.

Paul Ratter, left, and John Angus of Pelagia Shetland

Pelagia Shetland employs around 35 people on a permanent basis, with the workforce doubling during peak landing periods. Traditionally, much of the extra labour required had been sourced from EU eastern European countries, but with the current challenges in accessing EU labour following Brexit, other avenues are being explored, including the successful hiring of peak period employees from Ghana and the Philippines.

The processing operation has come a long way since it was first founded as Shetland Catch in

1989 as a joint venture between the Lerwick Harbour Trust (now Lerwick Port Authority), the Shetland Fish Producers Organisation and Jaytee Seafoods. Over the period, increased automation has enhanced efficiency, and changes in the business structure led to Norwegian company Austevoll Seafoods becoming a shareholder. A series of company mergers in Norway in the years thereafter led to the formation of Pelagia, which has held a majority shareholding in Pelagia Shetland since 2016.

The overall operation is  complemented by the nearby  Pelagia Bressay factory, which processes the trimmings from processed mackerel and herring into high grade fishmeal and oil. This ensures a highly efficient integrated operation, where all parts of the fish are utilised, ensuring  environmentally responsible production.

According to John Angus, sustainability and environmental protection are a key part of the ethos of Pelagia Shetland, which is why the investment of modern processing machinery and cold storage facilities is essential to ensure the lowest possible carbon footprint. Research has shown that Scottish caught mackerel is one of the lowest carbon footprint protein products around.

The Sunbeam makes a landing into the Pelagia Shetland processing facility

The company also actively supports a recovery initiative of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) mackerel tags. The mackerel are tagged at sea by scientists and the use of RFID tags in tandem with automatic detection systems in 28 factories throughout the NE Atlantic region – including Pelagia Shetland - has resulted in a massive increase in the data on migration and age structure of the fished stock. This data is used by the International Council for Exploration of the Sea (ICES) to assess the stock size and provide scientific advice on Total Allowable Catches.

Recently, the automated tag detection systems in Scottish processing facilities were modernised and updated, thanks to funding support from Marine Scotland, which has enhanced detection efficiency.

Dr Steven Mackinson, Chief Scientific Officer of the Scottish Pelagic Fishermen’s Association, says: “Scotland plays a crucial role in ensuring an accurate assessment of the mackerel stock and the tagging scheme is a great example of collaborative working among fishermen, processors and scientists. We are grateful to Pelagia Shetland, and all the other Scottish processors who contribute, for their tremendous support.”

John Angus adds: “As a company, we are committed to playing our part in meeting net-zero targets and in participating in science initiatives that help increase our knowledge of pelagic stocks and ensure a sustainable future.”