We've been hoisting basket-loads of a diminutive fish called Norway pout in the IBTS nets since the start of the trip.
A member of the cod family, the species is marked by a lower lip that juts out slightly beyond the top one (hence its name?). It doesn't have a long lifespan – around four to five years tops – and spends its days in close proximity to the seabed at a range of depths. It has, however, been observed rising from the bottom during the night.
Norway pout is fished throughout north-eastern Atlantic waters, from the Channel to Iceland and along the Norwegian coastline to the lower western corner of the Barents. The heart of its distribution lies midway between the Shetland Islands and the edge of Norway, which means the Johan Hjort is cruising across prime pout territory.
Humans aren't big eaters of these little fish, but both the ecosystem and the economy have a sizeable reliance on it. In the sea it is a key link in the food chain as prey for cod, hake and monkfish amongst others, whilst once caught it is processed into fishmeal for farmed species like salmon and also into fish oil.
To look at the graph below (from ICES) of Norway pout catches since the 1980s is to get a good idea of how they've risen and fallen over the decades, at times quite dramatically. From virtually nothing in the 60s to literally tens of thousands of tonnes tonnes in the mid-70s, the number dipped again by the mid-80s, fluctuating from then until a severe decline in recent years. The North Sea fishery was even closed a few times between 2005-2007.
Being a short-lived species, the population dynamic can change pretty quickly, and with so many species calling pout dinner, predation from year to year can also affect the stock. To its advantage, the spwaning ability of the female pout, 420-980 eggs per gram of body weight, helps the stocks to recover under the right management conditions.