Radio 4 listeners will be familiar with the mantra Viking, North Utsire, South Utsire, Forties, Cromarty, Forth, Tyne, Dogger, Fisher, German Bight, Humber, Thames, Dover, the tone poem of the shipping forecast that describes the North Sea in a spatial framework of weather zones and provides mariners with an important forecast of weather conditions.
Today the North Sea is a shallow, northeastern arm of the Atlantic Ocean located between the British Isles and northwestern Europe. To the north it is connected to the open Atlantic between the Orkney’s, Shetland’s, and Norway. To the south it is connected by the Straits of Dover and the English Channel. To the east the Skagerrak connects the North and Baltic seas via the Kattegat and Danish straits. Rarely deeper than 90 metres it is shallower in the south where average depths are less than 35 metres.
The Shipping Forecast by Seamus Heaney
Dogger, Rockall, Malin, Irish Sea:
Green, swift upsurges, North Atlantic flux
Conjured by that strong gale-warning voice,
Collapse into a sibilant penumbra.
Midnight and closedown. Sirens of the tundra,
Of eel-road, seal-road, keel-road, whale-road, raise
Their wind-compounded keen behind the baize
And drive the trawlers to the lee of Wicklow.
L’Etoile, Le Guillemot, La Belle Hélène
Nursed their bright names this morning in the bay
That toiled like mortar. It was marvellous
And actual, I said out loud, ‘A haven,’
The word deepening, clearing, like the sky
Elsewhere on Minches, Cromarty, The Faroes.
In geological terms the North Sea is relatively recent. At the end of the Pliocene, approximately 2.6 million years ago the North Sea Basin south of the Dogger Bank was part of the European mainland, the area now known in archaeological terms as Doggerland. The Rhine, joined on its left bank by the Thames, emptied into the sea some 400 km north of present day London. During the Pleistocene, c. 2,600,000 million to 11,700 years ago, the North Sea basin was covered to varying extent by a succession of ice sheets, with the greatest line of advance lying between the Thames estuary and the Dutch coast. With the final retreat of the glaciers c. 8,000 years ago rising sea levels inundated the low lying basin finally forming the current North Sea coastline some 3,000 years ago.
It’s long coastline and the presence of the major rivers emptying into it have given the North Sea a strong influence on European history, allowing for communication both across the sea and, via rivers such as the Rhine, Mass, Schelde, and Thames, access to the interior. This relative ease of communication has seen the North sea provide highways for migration, conquest and commerce. Today it remains one of the world’s busiest shipping areas with the Netherlands and the United Kingdom among the top-ranked countries in volume of sea-borne trade. Its major ports include Europoort in Rotterdam (in terms of cargo tonnage the world’s busiest port), Antwerp, and Hamburg.
Its waters are constantly fed by the Atlantic and nutrient rich river water that provide a rich supply of nutrient salts upon which lower forms of marine organisms thrive. The resulting abundant plankton supports a rich supply of fish, with cod, haddock, herring, and saithe being the main species fished. The isolated shoal of the Dogger Bank, a glacial moraine deposited at the southern limit of the last glaciations, is the North Sea’s best known fishing ground providing sizable quantities of plaice, cod, haddock, turbot, dabs, and herring.
The Atlantic Herring (Clupea harengus harengus) is a small headed, streamlined fish with silvery iridescent sides and deep blue, metallic hued backs. Adult herring range from 20-38 centimetres in length. It is one of the most abundant species in the world and feeds on minute sea organisms such as plankton and the fry of other fish. It is a pelagic fish, one that lives in the open sea near the surface. It is of great importance to marine ecosystems, providing an abundant food source for a huge number of species including sea birds, sea mammals, and nearly all predatory fish. Herring has been exploited for human consumption in Europe since at least 3,000 BC while intensive exploitation of northern European fisheries would appear to date from 1000 AD, probably in response to a rising population, dwindling freshwater fish resources, urbanism, and Christian fasting regulations. Most of the herring catch in Europe is either salted, pickled, or cured by smoking. Classic European herring dishes include kippers, bloaters, rollmops, brathering, and the infamous Swedish fermented herring delicacy, surströmming.
Fishing in the North Sea is governed by the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) which came into effect as a separate policy in 1983, with fishing formerly falling under the Common Agricultural Policy. In part the CFP was a response to the formation of Exclusive Economic Zones by many nations which claimed exclusive commercial rights over waters extending 200 km from their baselines. Given Europe’s narrow seas and extensive national coastlines the introduction of EEZs would have been impractical and led to conflict. The CFP allowed for signatory nations mutual access to each other’s waters, so that each nation’s traditional fishing grounds could be preserved.
Through a mixture of rules and controls, such as annual catch quotas for each species, reduction in the size of fishing fleets, and measures that regulate how and where fishermen can fish, the CFP seeks to regulate the fishing industry and manage stocks in a sustainable fashion. It is deeply unpopular with the fishing community, and to date has failed to preserve fish stocks. North Sea cod stocks in particular have suffered from overfishing, though strict quotas and decommissioning of ships in recent years appear to be creating an environment in which stocks are beginning to replenish themselves.
Research from the Defence Studies Department, King's College London
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