The Integrated Fisheries Foundation is a working group of fishermen along the coast of the Wadden Sea emerged from the concern about the current large-scale fishing practices. With the help of LEADER, the working group offered a sustainable and ecologically well-considered perspective for the future of the fisheries industry, embedded in nature and society.

In the Zoutkamp harbour, the banging noise from a hammer can be heard aboard the ZK 38, a boat owned by shrimper Johan Rispens. He is busy rebuilding his fish storage container. Rispens is one of the initial members of the Integrated Fisheries Working Group. In 2001, seven small fishing boat operators in the Wadden Sea region are joining forces as they are concerned about the developments in their industry. The amount of fish is in decline and the sector is under enormous pressure due to increasing specialisation and an increase in scale, being the effects of more and more rules and regulations. ‘Boats become bigger in size, working hours are getting longer and solidarity is a thing of the past’, he explains. ‘And in the meantime, more and more consumers demand sustainable, reliable and fresh fish caught in the region.’
Co-initiator Jaap Vegter, fisherman as well as fisheries biologist, researcher and adviser, also steps on board. With passion, but worried at the same time, they report on their Integrated Fisheries project and how the project ended up under LEADER. ‘In the meantime our working group has ten fishermen’, says Vegter. ‘As chairman and advocate I was involved in the Dutch Association of Shrimpers and the Groningen Association of Inland Fishermen, and in those circles I heard people talk about their concerns for the future. Government regulations have forced the fisheries sector to operate on an increasingly larger scale. But at the same time, fishermen saw both their income and their individuality shrink. That is what fishermen have been facing in recent decades. They also notice how it affects their image. The fisheries industry would soon be accused of robbing the seabed.’ Together with Rispens he established the working group, and not only shrimpers but also cocklers, anchor-net and inland fishermen followed soon. Because urgent action is required.

Using your head at sea

‘Help in Times of Need’ is the name of the Zoutkamp fishermen’s association since 1884’, says Johan Rispens. He is a member of the association with its roots in the mutual solidarity among fishermen. After all, fishermen earn their living from the same sea, the principle of the common fishing grounds. They rely on natural sources, but ‘we do not want to clear the sea of all fish’, says Johan Rispens. ‘My branch of shrimp fishing has become a capital-intensive business in recent years. It requires expensive boats and high fuel consumption, for which you have to work like a slave. But I am not part of that; my 188 HP boat engine would not be able to cope. We rather use our heads while we are out at sea: 12-hour working days will do for us, and we also like to have a social life in the weekends.’
Both men give an example of how the government rules and regulations produce the opposite effects: ‘After mechanical cockle fishing on the Wadden Sea was banned, the cockle stock has managed to increase. Manual cockle fishing has no ill effects to the area and may provide a proper source of income in combination with catching other fish species, such as bass or mullet. And yet the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature Management and Fisheries issues fishing permits to those who earn most from one form of fishery, e.g. shrimping or using static nets. That is the way of regulating; the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature Management and Fisheries believes that no fishing rights can be kept in reserve. But their vision is not in keeping with the idea of diversification that we support, using multi-purpose boats and fishing for whatever species of fish nature has on offer at different times of the year.’
They contacted the officials and administrators, and were heartened by the chairman of the Dutch Fishermen’s Union, Johan Nooitgedagt: ‘You are striving against the stream, but I give you my full support.’ He compared the situation with the farming community: ‘Look at how the agricultural conservation associations are booming; we must also do market research for our valuable regional products that are now sold in bulk.’

Regional and bottom-up

LEADER likes to deal with bottom-up, small-scale projects. ‘We meet those requirements’, says Jaap Vegter, ‘our proposals are even at a very small-scale. But we do try and keep a sharp eye in a positive and critical way at our own sector, in an effort to make improvements.’
The funding we received for our project to date was mainly spent on researching the technical aspects and the marketing options. But practical experiments are also undertaken, such as fishing for smelt and sprat using anchor nets, baskets and driftnets. Whether or not selective mullet fishing during summer can be regarded as a valuable side catch or be made into a regional product is still under investigation. Experiments are also done with an increased catch of bass using standing nets and long-lines in combination with fishing for crab, crayfish or mackerel.
A new LEADER programme has come out through to the end of 2013. The working group will also take part in this programme. Money will be made available from the European Fisheries Fund. Vegter: ‘We will take a study trip to England, as the English started many initiatives we would also like to implement: in Cornwall, bass is sold using the label ‘Seafood Cornwall’. After logging in a web site and entering a code from the label, consumers will be able to see where the fish has been caught. We would also like to set aside some money for research into the possibilities of marketing the Japanese oyster, which is doing so well in the Wadden Sea these days. Groningen has no shellfish tradition, and this has to change. A third project looks into the possibilities of mussel seed collector lines in the eastern part of the Wadden Sea. Perhaps we can make the Frisian and Groningen fishermen to produce mussels and oysters.’

Fresh fish market in Lauwersoog

The working group made itself known to the various authorities concerned, and these authorities have already recognised the great importance of an integrated form of fisheries. But the group is also aware of the enormous amount of work still to be done, such as deciding on a product range, introducing technologies that allow the catch of different fish species, the required extra training for individual fishermen, exploring the regional market and complying with licensing regulations. ‘We like to create a fresh fish market in Lauwersoog, like the existing one in Wieringen’, says Jaap, ‘but as far as our range of products is concerned, we still have a long way to go.’ The Agricultural Economics Research Institute (LEI) is currently in the process of investigating the feasibility of the plans and exploring the market. ‘But we have to be careful not to turn it into some kind of tourist attraction’, Vegter stresses. We want to create a viable and authentic fish market.’

Holding on

The Wadden Sea Council, an advisory body for the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature Management and Fisheries, published a report with similar objectives for sustainable fisheries in mind. ‘A small-scale fisheries sector that is visible in the Wadden Sea region and becomes part of the regional identity’, were the words used by the Council. At the same time, the Council has made it clear that such an approach is unlikely to come to fruition under the current central government policy before 2020. That is the reason why the Council has concluded and advised for the Ministry to develop a vision focussed on sustainable coastal fishing.
To make sure that ‘the natural balance of the fishing grounds is not further eroded’, the Council suggests to establish a new regional supervisory body for issuing fishing rights to small-scale and non-specialised fishing companies. In addition, also the Council admits, it will be necessary to retrain fishermen, to influence the market, and to reintroduce the mixed business operation.
It all looks like a matter of holding on, but Rispens and Vegter are still happy with the Council viewpoint. ‘But apart from all these technological and training activities, it is mainly a matter of getting the consumer used to seasonal seafood.’ And they are concerned about achieving this within the limits of the economic investments. That is what their investigation is focussed on. ‘For instance, would it be possible to use Johan’s shrimp cutter for sprat fishing?’, is a topical question. Because that branch of fishery would require different equipment aboard. A current study is focussed on the different fish and shellfish species which can be combined for each fisherman. Fisheries institute IMARES, associated with the Wageningen University, is assisting with the study.
In the meantime, investments are necessary right now, e.g. in shrimp-peeling machines, in a trade mark office and in renovating the boats. Sadly, due to the competition clause, Brussels dictates that the newly established Wadden Fund will not be in a position to provide any subsidy for such investments this coming year. ‘We must certainly keep watch over supposed support from the government’, both men sighed. But for the time being they carry on working.
As we are leaving the Zoutkamp fishing port, the air is filled with the sound of hammers and other tools aboard the boats.