- Scientific name: Merlangius merlangus
- Also know as: Pin Whiting is a term for small immature whiting.
- Size: Up to 18 inches and 7lbs (UK shore caught typically 1lb or less)
- UK minimum size: 11inches (27cm) in length
- UK shore caught record: 4lb 8oz
- ICUN Status: LC (Least Concern)
- Distribution: Widespread throughout all UK and Irish waters during autumn and winter.
- Feeds on: Anything it can find by scavenging around on the seabed for marine worms, crustaceans and shellfish. Whiting will also actively hunt for small fish.
- Description: Upper jaw protrudes slightly. Back can be brownish, grey or greenish, fading on the flanks to pale, sometimes silvery lower flanks and underbelly. High lateral line curves upwards and eyes are relatively large. Like all members of the cod family the whiting has three dorsal fins.
The whiting is a small fish – a specimen of 2lbs is a very good catch, but what they lack in size they make up for in numbers. Whiting are very common around much of the UK, and many an angler has been spared a blank fishing session by the willingness of the little whiting to take a bait. Whiting are at their most common in the autumn and winter. Fresh from spawning these early fish are often skinny and very hungry, but they soon fatten up after feeding in coastal waters. Bigger whiting of 1-2lb become more common closer to Christmas, and by late March the whiting have begun to move out to sea again to spawn, although smaller whiting may stay in coastal waters all year round, with areas such as North East England and parts of Scotland seeing whiting caught all year round.
Distribution and Habitat
Whiting are found around most of the British Isles during the colder months of the year. They are predominantly found in the North Sea, although they are also present throughout the North Atlantic, Norwegian Sea and around the coast of Iceland. Their range extends southwards as far as the coast of Portugal and they are also found in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Whiting can be found across a range of seabeds and in water down to several hundred metres deep.
Whiting are a perfect example of a fish that has gone up in commercial value as the numbers of more traditional food fish (such as cod and haddock) have gone down. A few years ago it was unheard of to have whiting as a table fish, with the vast majority that were caught being used for fishmeal or pet food. Now, however, whiting are a common sight in fish mongers and supermarket fish counters, and are commonly found in frozen fish products. With this in mind it is important that whiting stocks are managed correctly so the populations of this fish remain stable. Anglers can do their bit by returning any whiting that are not going to end up on the table, as anglers taking excessive catches can certainly dent numbers. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature currently classes whiting as a species of Least Concern, although this will be reviewed in the near future as there are issues regarding the regulation of commercial fishing for whiting and stocks in certain areas are showing signs of decline.
Whiting are a fast growing species, reaching 6-7 inches in length at one year old and around 12 inches in their second year, by which time they will also be sexually mature. This high fecundity means that whiting are common and numerous around the British Isles and explains why they are seen as a commercially sustainable species of fish. Whiting form large, loose shoals and hunt for food, tending to stay in slightly deeper water during daylight, but at night they move into shallower water to feed meaning that catches often pick up once the sun has begun to set. While calm conditions are generally not the best for winter sea fishing whiting have a reputation for taking baits when the sea is flat and other species such as cod are in deeper water and out of range of the sea angler.
While whiting are a shoal fish they compete aggressively with each other for food, often taking baits as soon as they settle on the seabed. Small, immature whiting are known as pin whiting and can often be caught two or three at a time on multi-hook rigs. It is thought that bigger older whiting, those around the 2lb mark can be up to six to eight years old, move away from shoal living and become solitary fish, hunting for food alone further out to sea. Whiting are a demersal fish (one which hunts for food on or near the seabed), although they may move into mid-water and near to the surface when hunting smaller fish.
Shore and Boat Caught Records
Both the shore caught and boat caught records for whiting have been broken relatively recently. The boat record for whiting was broken in 2012 with a specimen of 7lb 6oz caught by Mark Curtis while fishing over a wreck in the English Channel. The shore caught record of 4lb 8oz was set in 2014 by David Backler who was fishing at Orford Ness off the coast of Suffolk. This broke the previous shore caught record of 8lb 7dr which had stood since 1984.
Techniques and Methods to Catch Whiting
Whiting are not a difficult fish to catch. Anglers specifically targeting whiting generally use size 1 or 1/0 hooks on a two hook flapping rig. There is no need to be selective with bait as whiting are unfussy feeders and will take ragworm, lugworm or mackerel baits – no need to waste expensive peeler crab or fiddle around securing soft mussel baits to the hook with elastic or cotton. It is common to get double shots of whiting on a two hook rig when a shoal descends on an area.
The willingness of the whiting to snap at a bait can see anglers aiming for a big cod becoming frustrated at the number of small whiting constantly being caught. Indeed, most whiting caught in UK waters are probably hooked by anglers aiming for cod rather than those specifically fishing for whiting. At times this can cause the whiting to be regarded as a pest species. Stepping up hook sizes to 4/0 – 6/0 is the only real option to prevent this. Despite being an aggressive little predator the whiting is a delicate fish that does not seem to survive being unhooked well. One theory is that it is hot human hands that shock the cold water whiting and cause its death, rather than injury from hooks or being reeled in. Anglers can help to return whiting to the sea in good condition by handling them as little as possible when unhooking this species.