The Electric Pulse Fisher - Why I wanted to be on the North Sea for a week.

'Dutch devastate marine life with electric shock fishing.' You might have come across headlines like these in the past year. Some of the Dutch fishing industry has been under scrutiny, due to the use of electrical pulse when fishing for sole and plaice in the North Sea. Since I began exploring the food chain as a Food Chain Traveler, I’ve had my mind set on spending a week on an electric pulse trawler. That wish came true last month.

Critique of innovations in fisheries is nothing new, both from the shore and from fellow fishermen. Already in the year 1320, nets of which the meshes were considered too fine were burnt publicly in Barking, a port near London. In 1583 in the Netherlands, prince William of Orange responded to complaints about the use of the beam trawl, which was said to destroy the seabed in such a way that the total depletion of all fish stocks would be a matter of time. The pattern has repeated itself many times since then: fishers innovate, become more efficient and thereby sometimes cause unforeseen effects to fish stocks and nature, but nearly always disadvantage their colleagues, who in turn appeal for legislation.

The idea of using electricity for fishing first appeared in the eighteenth century, when a Dutch doctor called Job Baster wondered if he could catch shrimps by ‘scaring’ them of the seabed with electricity. However, it was only in the 1980s that serious experimentation took place. Since 1998 the technology has been banned at a European level under a regulation ‘for the protection of juveniles of marine organisms, together with other techniques such as explosives, narcotic or toxic substances’.

Fast forward to 2004. Fuel prices are rising, the call for protection of the seabed is increasing, and with that the need for innovation. The Dutch installation company DELMECO developes a first workable version of the pulse trawl which is tested at sea by a cutter from the fisher village Urk. The results are positive, to the extent that Dutch politicians, including secretary of state Henk Bleker, manage to arrange an exemption at European level for the ban on fishing with electricity. First for five fishermen, then for twenty, and eventually for almost all cutters who sign up for such an exemption. Finally, in December 2015, 84 Dutch fishermen have an exemption from the European ban on fishing with a pulse, all with the explicit command to collaborate on scientific research.

Watch this short video made by the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs for some insight into the method of Electric Pulse Fishing.

But there is major opposition to this development. Coastal fishers in France, Belgium, England and the Netherlands complain that there is nothing left to catch if an electric pulse trawler has preceded them. In 2017 environmental organisation Bloom, based in France, launches a very successful campaign against pulse fishing. According to them this method is an ‘environmental, political, financial and social scandal’, because it would cause major damage to fish and seabed, and threaten the livelihoods of thousands of other European fishers.

As a result of this campaign, on the 16th of January 2018 a majority of the European Parliament votes for a full ban on electric pulse fishing. We’ll now have to wait and see whether this ban is confirmed by the European Commission and individual member states.

This is what lies ominously on the horizon for the electric pulse fisher. And it is not the only dark cloud ahead. The plans for additional wind farms on the North Sea and the consequences of Brexit may lead to a considerable reduction of their fishing grounds. Then there is also the 'landing obligation' that has been phased in since 1 January 2019, and requires fishermen to keep large quantities of non-marketable 'undersized' fish on board.

If there ever was a story in food production that I felt deserved a closer look, this is it. So I went looking for a pulse fisher who would want to take a curious writer on board for a week. I found that fisherman in Hans Tanis.

Hans Tanis (29) is the fifth generation fisherman of his family. Since the nineteenth century, the male members of the Tanis family have sailed out of Stellendam onto the southern North Sea in search of plaice, sole and cod. Together with his father, uncle and nephew, Hans now owns the GO 37, an eighteen-year-old, forty-meter-long cutter. GO stands for Goeree, the island and municipality where Stellendam is located. The GO 37 is also known under the name 'Eben Haezer', which translates as ‘The stone of help’, signifying the help that God has provided thus far.

The GO 37 ‘Eben Haezer’

The GO 37 ‘Eben Haezer’

I first come into contact with Hans through a mutual friend at the Dutch Fishers Association. I asked her if she knew a someone fishing with electric pulse, who would talk to me about this subject, and who might even want to take me aboard for a week. "I would try Hans, he’s a young, interesting fisherman, someone you can probably talk to about this," she told me over the phone.

So finally, at the end of December 2018 I call Hans for the first time. On Friday, because that’s when he ashore, and reachable by phone. If I miss my window I’ll have to wait another week to call him. Luckily, Hans picks up right away, and responds positively to my questions. I can come aboard the GO 37 for a week, to see pulse fishing in practice. We agree that I will join him and his crew on the 14th of January, weather permitting.

On Wednesday January 9th, Hans sends me a Whatsapp message.

Hans: ‘Hi Maarten, how are you?’

Maarten: ‘Hi Hans, all is well here. I’m anxiously keeping tabs on the weather forecast for next week! How are you?’

Hans: ‘All well here, weather is rocky though’

Hans: ‘Next week won’t be great either.’

Hans: ‘Wind speed 6 to 7 and waves up to 3 meters’

Hans: ‘But if you’re up to it it’s fine by me, I’ll the cook to get groceries for one extra person’

We're going for it.

The next parts of this story will be published from Sunday the 10th until Friday the 15th of February.

Maarten Kuiper