The Electric Pulse Fisher - Tuesday

Tuesday, January 15, 7:40 am, somewhere on the North Sea

Last night around one ‘o'clock I joined the crew outside for a haul, to observe the process of gutting and sorting the fish. Then, I slept until a quarter to eight. Oops. I wasn’t exactly planning on going out with every single haul, but still I’m embarrassed to have slept six hours while the crew was out there every two hours.

It is still dark when I walk into the wheelhouse, Kees is on watch. In the past few hours we’ve moved a bit further towards the northwest, looking for a good haul. Up to now, we have not yet exceeded 85 kilos of sole. 85 Kilos is not bad, but it could be better.

IMG_20190117_123837 (1).jpg

With the next haul, around ten o'clock in the morning, I join the crew again outside. Peter installs me alongside the conveyor belt and hands me a knife. It's time to make myself useful. He demonstrates how to clean a plaice. It’s head in the left hand, brown side up. With a knife under the fin a quick cut to the top right, exert a little pressure with the fingers of the left hand to push the guts out, and pull those out with the knife in one swift gesture. Then the sole. Grab it’s head, white side up, head towards you. Knife goes into the gill and cuts upwards, and with the knife, pull the guts out. The fish goes into the specified container, guts to the floor.

With Peter, Henk, Kees, Chris and Richard this gutting takes place in a continuous series of two movements: the left hand grabs the fish, the right hand cuts and removes the guts. I am considerably slower, picking up the fish, dropping it, grabbing the fish again, finally at the head. I cut, push, and remove the guts with about three or four clumsy moves. Then I think, ‘which of the containers was the sole supposed to go in again?’. The sole is also considerably stronger than the plaice. Each sole I pick curls around my hand with surprising force, determined to wrestle itself from my hands. With each repetition the clumsiness wears of, but I'm happy when the last fish rolls by on the conveyor belt. Fortunately, I have patient teachers who do not seem to mind that the process is a bit delayed again.

Back in the canteen, drinking coffee, we watch the news via satellite. A Canadian who was arrested in China for drug smuggling in 2014 is now sentenced to death, allegedly because a top woman from Huawei was arrested in Canada. The next item is about Theresa May in a last unsuccessful attempt to prevent a 'No Deal Brexit'. Then a US official who won’t receive a salary due to the government shutdown, and will soon be unable to buy her insulin without the financial help of her son. For a moment we all seem to be nothing more than pawns in larger political games.

We have lunch with french fries today. Usually the fries are on the Thursday menu, but since the waves are expected to be higher in the coming days, today we’ll have the least chance of piping hot frying oil gushing over the fryer.

13:10 I'm in the kitchen with Chris. Chris has a son of sixteen years old, Friday they will sign him up at the nautical school in Stellendam. Is he, as a father, not concerned about his son’s future in fishing? 'There are indeed many fishermen who do not want their son to go fishing. But yeah. He wants it, I understand that. For a while, I have been working in other industries. First in the port of Rotterdam, later a few months as a mussel fisherman. Working in the port was a more consistent source of income, but I felt like a traitor, as if I had turned my back on fishing. I went back to visit this ship when they first had the pulse gear installed. I couldn’t believe my eyes! So every month I sent a message to Hans's father, ‘Can you give me a place on board?’. When it finally happened, I had nearly given up. "

16:30 I'm talking to Peter in the wheelhouse. Did he always want to go become a fisherman? "I really had my doubts when I finished high school. But the sea has a strong pull on me. When I was young, every summer vacation I would spend five of the six weeks at sea. There was sort of an inevitability there. But ten years ago, when I finished high school, times were rough. Normally we divide the weekly income after deducting costs. 60% Goes to the owners and 40% to the rest of the crew. At that time, we had months in a row that my father had to give the crew a guarantee pay, because the income was too low. Nobody was making any money. At that time I started to study as a Marine Officer, to be sure, so that I could sail many different kinds of ships. I sailed for a while on a Dutch herring trawler. They also wanted to keep me on as well. But at that time the family asked me what future I saw for me. Then I finally opted for sole fishing. It’s better for me, now at least I’m at home every weekend. With those herring trawlers you’re six weeks on, six weeks off. Six weeks away from home is a long time. But maybe six weeks at home is even longer, haha. "

19:10 I’m in the wheelhouse with Hans, picking his brain about quotas. I’m trying to make sense of the numbers and figures regulating the amount of fish that is allowed to be caught on a yearly basis. It is a complicated story for the layman. Nearly every year Hans and Peter invest in additional quota, especially for sole. That is risky, because it can be determined annually in the European Union that the quota for a species is reduced. For example: Hans had a quota of 110.000 kilo of sole in November 2017. In the European Council, on the basis of advice from marine biologists, the quota for all European fishermen was reduced by 20%, leaving Hans a with quota of 88.000 kg. On the auction, Hans receives on average € 15, - per kilo of sole, meaning he potentially misses out on € 330.000 by this quota reduction. Still, Hans buys extra quota every year to keep his relative share high. In 2018 he bought quota up to 110.000 kg, and rented another 40.000 kilo.

Asked whether he would like to change anything about the current system, he says: that is difficult .. To be honest I would like to see something changed about  ‘silent quota ', when people who do not or no longer fish themselves still have a quota, and earn money of it by renting it out. Maybe it would be better if that quota comes on the market. But, then you’d probably have the big shipping companies buy it, which is not very beneficial to us or the sector. Aside from that, the way of regulating fisheries could change to go to a time limited schedule, so no restrictions on the amount of fish you can catch, but how many days you are allowed to fish in certain areas. But that would be an extra disadvantage for everyone who has up to now invested in quota."

Easy solutions do not seem to be available here.

Skipper Hans brings in the nets.

Skipper Hans brings in the nets.

After a day of taking cinnarizine pills against motion sickness, I seem to get used to the rhythm of the sea. I no longer stumble through the corridors without bumping into walls left and right, and I haven’t felt really sick yet. So far, so good.

Maarten Kuiper