The Electric Pulse Fisher - Sunday-Monday

Sunday, January 13, 21.55, Stellendam

‘What have I gotten myself into’, I ponder. I’m all alone at a dark, windy bus station in Stellendam. 'Is this really a such a great idea, imposing myself for a week, as an inquisitive meddler into another world, no idea if I can hold my own against the elements that these fishermen defy on a weekly basis?' Then again, I always have these kind of doubts, everytime I dive into a new adventure.. Let it pass.

As agreed, Hans picks me up from the bus station. At first sight he’s a kind looking man in his late twenties. We drive to the harbor, where he gives me a short tour on his ship, the 'Eben Haezer'. I see a ship's cabin that might as well be the ideal setup for a fanatic gamer. One comfortable chair on a raised platform, surrounded by six monitors. Below deck I see separate rooms for the crew, a kitchen, and a lunchroom. I’m actually surprised by all the comfort the ship seems to provide, it is by all means a home away from home. And lucky me, I have a private cabin directly behind the wheelhouse, with private shower and toilet. After the tour Hans returns home to spend a few last hours with his family. We will be sailing out in eight hours. I install myself in my cabin and check my mail and the latest news.

My cabin for the coming days, including bedding with a shark pattern.

My cabin for the coming days, including bedding with a shark pattern.

Monday January 14, 13:20, North Sea ± 30km off the coast

We have sailed out at six o'clock in the morning, and immediately started fishing when we were twelve miles out of the coast. I discover the rhythm of the day. The nets on each side of the ship are lowered and dragged just above the seabed. After two hours, the nets are lifted up again. Only the ends of the net, the tails, are brought in and emptied on the deck above two big containers. Sole, plaice, crabs, starfish and a ray or two go up directly via a conveyor belt, where the fish are stripped and sorted by type. As soon as both containers are empty, the sorted fish go straight to different boxes in the hold, on ice. During sorting - which takes about thirty minutes - the nets go back into the water to about 28 meters depth and the course is resumed. Two hours will be brought aboard again. This process repeats itself continuously, around forty times, from Monday morning until Friday when the fish is brought to auction. In between each haul, there is time for to sleep or eat.

Although the work can be carried out with a minimum of five men, we are with seven this week. Besides Hans, there is his nephew Peter, and veterans Henk, Chris and Kees. Then there is Richard, the benjamin, who has been working on this ship as an intern since August. Everyone has their own responsibility. For instance, Henk ensures that all materials, nets and ropes are in order. Peter's domain is the engine room and Chris takes care of the meals, including doing the shopping.

The crew of the Eben Haezer, Richard, Henk, Kees, Peter, Hans and Chris.

The crew of the Eben Haezer, Richard, Henk, Kees, Peter, Hans and Chris.

During the first few hauls, I’m in the wheelhouse with shipper Hans. I’m overloaded with information, which I try to sort and store in my brain as well as I can. I ask, Hans explains. He tells me about the increasing amount of wind farms and nature conservation areas, causing the area that remains available for fishing is getting smaller and smaller. He tells me about the ‘landing obligation’, which obliges fishers to no longer through overboard fish that is deemed too small to sell, but bring it to land. 'Typically a form of regulation that is conceived by people who do not understand how fisheries work’, says Hans. We talk about Brexit, how many Dutch fellow fishermen are active in the fishing grounds around Great Britain. If these grounds are closed as a consequence of Brexit, those fishermen will also revert to the grounds where the Eben Haezer is fishing. Hans also tells me about pulse fishing and it’s near future. In April, forty-two cutters are likely to lose their exemption, and then have to go back to fishing with wake chains. They will have to see if they can make ends meet, going back to higher fuel prices. For the remaining forty-two electric pulse fishers, there is currently an active debate and lobbying in European politics.

Hans sits centrally on his throne in the wheelhouse, surrounded by screens with radar and satellite images. He could almost be a gamer, with his feet up, mouse in hand calmly planning the route for the next two hours.

Skipper Hans planning the route for the next haul.

Skipper Hans planning the route for the next haul.

On the third haul I go outside with the crew and observe the process. Once back in the wheel house with Hans I share my observation. I’ve seen a fair amount of fish that is too small and unsaleable. Discards, not to be confused with bycatch. Bycatch refers to all fish that are not the target species but are large enough to sell, such as flounder and dab. Discards now have to brought on land, but can not be sold. Bycatch does go to the auction.

Sole is, as it turns out, a species where there is always an amount of bycatch and discards in the net. In fisheries that aim for fish that move in the water column, in schools, like herring or mackerel, more targeted fishing can be done. The net will not be deployed until a large school has been spotted on the sonar. With fishing on the seabed, there is always some intuition involved, and the fish are less well-sorted. Hans: ‘In seabed trawling you can never know in advance exactly what will be in our net, we don’t have the technical means available yet.'

‘It was either the pulse, or quit.’

Hans and his family were in the 'first movers' group, the first twenty fishermen in the Netherlands who were allowed to fish with pulse trawl. But that does not mean that they were immediately convinced that electric pulse had a future.

'What many people do not understand is how close the water was to our lips in 2011', Hans’ nephew Peter tells me later. ‘The previous version of the beam trawl - with ‘tickler chains’ - had a lot more resistance on the seabed. We had to go faster, about 6.5 miles per hour instead of the 4.7 we do now, because the effect of the chains is better at a higher speed. Because of these two things we needed double the amount of fuel compared to what we use now. About 30,000 liters per week compared to 15,000 now. In addition, an increasing fuel price reached € 0.70 per liter. We could not have lasted long in that situation, we were losing money fast. It was either the pulse or quit. A lot of fellow fishermen quit in those years. Twenty-five years ago there still were fifty or sixty boats in Stellendam harbour, nowadays there are only about nine left. "

'I'm worried about the size of the group of sole fishermen,' says Peter. 'Forty will very likely have to stop this year. They lose their exemption for the pulse, it is actually too expensive to continue in the old way, so many will stop. If there is too little fisherman bringing sole into the fish auction, the price will rise, making it unaffordable for the group of consumers who can still afford it now. '

18:46 After the fourth haul, we get a quick bite to eat. We’ve gone from 40, to 65, to 75 kilos of sole per haul. We want at least one hundred kilos. With every haul, Hans is looking at the quantity and type of fish, and on the basis of that, plans the course ahead.

Before and after dinner we pray. The first time I make the rookie mistake to continue conversation just when everyone folds their hands and closes their eyes. 'But what about ...'. 'Shhh...', Henk signals with a finger on the lips from the other table. A lot of cut meats and grill sausage on the table, eaten with brown bread. A pan full of chicken legs is already simmering on the fire for the next meal.

The next part of this story will be published on Tuesday 11 February.

Maarten Kuiper