One week in oyster town.
Tuesday, early, early morning. My alarm is set for three thirty, I’m awake before that. I ponder my life choices. Why did I choose to leave the comfort of a steady job again, instead having to get up in the dead of a winter night, to go fishing on a freezing sea? I hit the snooze button, out of habit, and doze of again.
At a quarter to four I scare awake and jump out of bed, into some unwashed clothes I had on the day before. There is a faint smell of fish around them.
This week - Monday to Friday - I’m in the business of oysters & fish. I’m helping out ‘Goede Vissers’ (the good fishers) Jan and Barbara, at their restaurant and place of production in Lauwersoog. From there Jan and Barbara have been fishing, buying fish at the auction and delivering to restaurants and markets in the Netherlands. Since a few years, they’ve expanded their circle of clientele into Germany and Switzerland. And they’ve started harvesting oysters from the Waddenzee.
I’m staying at the farm of my aunt and uncle, the place where my grandparents used to live and farm, roughly 50 kilometers south of Lauwersoog. I thought it’d be fun to be able to spend some time with family this week. But now, getting into the car in the pitch black of night to drive for an hour to Lauwersoog, the choice seems less rational.
I arrive in Lauwersoog a few minutes before five ‘o clock. It’s still dark. In the restaurant, Jan happily welcomes me with a cup of coffee. He slept well. Barbara didn’t. She lay awake most of the night, her mind too occupied with a constant flow of challenges - like an upcoming permit application to keep harvesting oysters - to really come to rest.
Rested or not, it’s time to get to work. We pack ourselves in extra layers of clothing to protect us from water and cold. My full outfit consists of socks, extra socks, two layers of thermal underwear, pants, a big sweater, waders, an oilskin jacket, two pairs of gloves, a wool hat and a headlight. I feel like I’m being hugged to death by thermal wear, but it will turn out to be worth it.
Once fully suited up we step aboard a long rubber dinghy, loaded up with forty empty fish crates, with names of fish auctions like IJmuiden, Den Oever and Scheveningen on the side. Jan sends the boat through the shallow waters of the Wadden sea, about twelve kilometers out. There’s not a lot of stars out tonight, the only lights we do see are coming from the lighthouse of Schiermonnikoog. After about twenty minutes we jump out into knee high water, trusting the waterproof quality of the waders. Carrying four empty fish crates, I wade my way after the faint light of Jan’s head torch ahead of me. The sound of sloshing water beneath my feet makes way for a slight crunching sound, as I slowly rise up out of the sea onto a rocky bank. On closer inspection the bank turns out to be fully covered with oyster shells. Some dead, some alive, the latter ones to be gathered into our fish crates and taken ashore.
This oyster is an outsider, a stranger. The crassostrea gigas, or pacific oyster, was intentionally introduced into Dutch aquaculture in the early sixties, when an oyster disease caused the demise of local species. The Pacific oyster turned out to do well, and flourished in the ‘wild’ waters of Zeeland and the Wadden sea. By now, some consider this outsider to be a plague. Others see it as a valuable part of a local ecosystem.
Jan and Barbara are part of the latter group, and two of eighteen people who are allowed to gather oysters on the Waddenzee for commercial purposes. Others can take up to ten kilograms for personal use.
By now it’s around six in the morning, still dark, the only sound around me the rustling of my oilskin jacket and the faint thuds of oysters filling up in crates nearby. As instructed by Barbara, I’m seated on one of the crates turned upside down, an empty one beside me. One by one I pick up oysters, some as small as a dinky toy, some as big as my foot. All oysters are covered in barnacles, mussels and mud. Any small opening in the shell’s rim, or a hollow sound when tapped indicate that the oyster is dead and must be left on the bank. It will function as a basis for new generations of oysters to grow on.
Dawn slowly sets in, somewhere between seven and eight ‘o clock. Beginning as a faint shimmer, within thirty minutes the entire sky is lit up with vibrant orange, yellow and pink. I think back to my life six months ago. Around this time, I would’ve left home to join a half awake horde of cyclists in Amsterdam, to find my place behind a computer, under fluorescent lights. I regret my life decisions a little less in this theater.
With the dawn comes the rising tide. This is our cue. 24 Crates of oysters are loaded onto the boat, and we head back to base. A strong east-wind has come up, making the cold slowly creep through four layers of clothing, penetrating flesh and bones. Once home, the boat is anchored parallel to the dyke and we head in for breakfast, slowly allowing coffee and fireplace to warm up our bones. By now it’s ten in the morning. The day has only just begun.
The rest of the day is filled with a multitude of tasks, big and small. Working with Jan & Barbara, there is alway something to be done. If they would somehow be able to clone two extra versions of themselves, I feel all six Jan & Barbara’s would still work the same amount of hours in a day. In this specific week, Barbara decides to cancel her attendance at three meetings concerning the future of fisheries and/ or the Waddenzee. There is too much to be done, and only by the end of the week she seems slightly happy about the progress she’s made.
I try to help out by doing whatever seems to have priority. I assist Jan with emptying our 24 crates of oysters out on the dyke. Left there, the waves will slowly clean the barnacles of them, revealing their true, much prettier exterior. Next, we prepare some fish that weren’t sold at the market to be smoked. I cut the heads of roughly one hundred gurnards and plaices, run a skewer through them and hang them out to dry in the wind. Later, I hang them in the homemade smoker, negotiate with fire, wind and oxygen to achieve fairly well smoked fish, not bad for my first try. In the meantime I cook a meal for five, including two WWOOFers from Italy that will arrive this afternoon. I don’t love cooking, and the prospect of cooking lasagne for two Italians terrifies me. But there is no way I will tell Barbara ‘I’d rather not’. So I cook.
The week fills up like this, one task following the other. Days start early and end with a shared meal around six in the evening. I learn to split and clean oysters, sort them by size and pack them up for transport. The objective here is to fit at last 150 oysters in each box, a sort of 3D Tetris, while trying to match or approximate the speed at which colleague Isa is performing the same task.
On Friday, my last day, I drive a van full of oysters to Amsterdam, picking up orders of shrimps and eel along the way. I’m happy about this week, to have been part of the insane workflow of Jan & Barbara, if only just for a few days. But in all honesty, I’m also pretty happy to be able to go home.