Maritime Music

Apparently people associate Irish traditional music with the sea. At least the organisers of Bremen’s Festival Maritim do, or else I would not have played there with Tobermore last August, alongside other folk bands like Harmony Glen and Alban Fuam. Perhaps Ireland’s insular geography evokes an association with anything marine in the heads of continental land lubbers. Perhaps the cultural ties with other British islands blurs the distinction between sea shanties and slip jigs. What’s more, the hornpipe, which is found throughout English, Scottish, and Irish traditional music, is a sailor’s dance by origin.


In any case, Festival Maritim was a absolute blast, a feast of music, food, and drink, the closest you might get to rock ‘n roll without amplifiers. We played four gigs, sold a load of CDs, had a massive session on Saturday night and met many wonderful fellow musicians. Special mention goes to the Shoepolishers, a French folkpunk band we befriended over sessions and Kraken rum. Except for The Pogues and Kultur Shock I find most folkpunk bands painfully boring and staggeringly unoriginal, but these folks played a juggernaut of a show: such energy, such enthusiasm.

Do the Shoepolishers play maritime music? Not that I could hear. If you’re looking for any musical reference to maritime affairs at the Festival Maritim, go to one of the uncountable shanty choirs, who will sing old sailor’s songs from the days when singing was a way of synchronising manual labour on a sailing vessel or in the harbour. There is no guarantee that any of the singers has ever been at sea, although I would not be surprised if some or most have a sailing boat at home. Fascination with the ocean does not require a maritime profession, and there are many ways to quench your thirst for salty water if your day job is at the office.

This summer I also had a very short-lived musical career with The Pyrates, substituting for their violinist Rowan Schuddeboom. The Pyrates play old English, Irish, Australian, and New-Zealand folk songs, played on drums, guitar, bass, and fiddle. And dressed as a pirate from Pirates Of The Caribbean, of course. It was one of the most difficult and stressful things I ever did for fun. Most of the band had extensive musical experience, which put the bar a lot higher than I could manage. The drummer had toured all over the world with Within Temptation, and the reason Rowan was not available was that he was busy completing his conservatory education. When, after one gig (on Kijkduin beach, aptly) the band decided that they would rather cancel the second gig than play it with me I felt disappointed, hurt, but also relieved. But it was a valuable experience, and I learned a lot from it musically as well as personally. Don’t quit your day job, an A&R manager would say.


So what makes music maritime? Surely lyrics can refer to a sailor’s life, the call of the sea, or the mysteries below the waves. There are countless Irish tunes with names like Out On The Ocean, The Rolling Waves, or The Ships Are Sailing. But music itself? Can something as abstract as music capture the rhythm of the waves, the endless horizons, and the merciless rage of a stormy ocean?

After my fishing trip on the SL-9 I wrote a tune that I decided to call The Flyshoot:


I felt it had to be a slip jig. Only a slip jig can capture the broken rhythm of a cutter as it makes a seemingly perfect arch in the sky while it climbs over a wave, only to violently crash into another wave as it comes down, and then goes up again. (Considering that flyshooting is originally a Danish fishing technique – the Danes call it snurrevaad – a polka may have been more fitting but it just doesn’t feel right.)

How about metal? One of my favourite post-metal bands is a German collective called The Ocean. Although I had missed their gig at Roadburn in 2013, I blindly bought their CD Pelagial, and only because it was their only CD with an instrumental version (I usually hate what passes for vocals in metal: most of it is grunting, screaming, or just whining). Pelagial describes a journey to the darkest depths of the ocean, which is supposed to be a metaphor for the unconscious (what metal bands lack in basic psychology they compensate with pseudo-Freudian psycho-babble). I’m sure the sounds of a heavily breathing diver and bubbles escaping from his mental submarine help, but even without those sounds the music is fitting for the dramatic contrasts between tense, eery calm and uncontrollable rage that makes the sea so fascinating to us terrestrial apes.

Recently I discovered Ahab, a German doom metal band whose music is inspired entirely by Moby Dick. Their first album, Call Of The Wretched Sea, is full of slow, dark, heavy riffs as macabre and unstoppable as the fate of the captain and his white whale. Yes, there is grunting on the album, lots of it, and I needed to get used to it to appreciate the album. But it works.

Then there is Alcest‘s Écailles de Lune, which supposedly is inspired by oceans and seas, but hearing that in their music takes more of my imagination than it does for the two albums I just mentioned. Nevertheless it’s a beautiful, dramatic album, shoegazing at its best. Internetfora also mention ISIS‘s Oceanic, and Mastodon‘s Leviathan, but I find those least convincing. Oceanic sounds too blunt, too ‘square’, to resemble the ocean in any way (perhaps a four-fourth measure just doesn’t cut it). And Leviathan is simply Mastodon: perfect music for a biker bar but not for rolling waves.

Any other suggestions? Which ocean-inspired metal band should I absolutely check out?


Call me Ishmael. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

And that is just the first paragraph. If you read only one book in your life, for God’s sake, let it be Moby Dick.


Two days on a flyshooter

For years I have told myself that if I want to pretend to know anything about fishing I should at least once join a fishing vessel and see the real thing. What held me back for a long time, however, is that a typical Dutch beam trawler fishes day and night, in batches of 2-3 hours, for about five days. That is a lot of time to block in your agenda, and a brutal day rhythm.

Enter the flyshoot fishery. The flyshoot technique has been used by Dutch fishermen since the 1980s, but it really took off about ten years ago, when fuel prices were high and NGOs criticized the impact of beam trawlers on the bottom of the sea. Flyshooting is an attractive alternative to the beam trawl because it is more fuel efficient, more selective, and easier on the seafloor. For a landlubber like me a great advantage is that a typical flyshooter makes fishing trips of about two to three days, during which fishing takes place only by daylight. That is a lot easier to reserve in my agenda and I might even get a decent night’s sleep while on board!


All aboard

So last Sunday evening I got on board the SL-9 Johanna, together with Arie Mol of Wageningen Economic Research and Marnix (the skipper), Sandy (the engineer), William (the cook), Colin and Toon. For Arie it was a fishing trip down memory lane: as a teenager he spent many a week on a small cutter. For me it was a whole new world. For the crew, of course, it was just another working week.

To understand the feeling leaving the port of Scheveningen you need to realize that coming from Wassenaar, I have looked out over this part of the North Sea countless times. I’ve flown over it on vacations or work trips, spotting ships and offshore wind parks. I have never, however, actually been on it. To go past the Scheveningen port lights, the motor humming and the occasional seagull calling, and to feel the calm water turn into a steady swell, was a magical moment.

Sleeping in a cutter is like sleeping in a light version of a rollercoaster. As the ship climbs up and rolls down the waves, you feel yourself floating in the air, pressed into your pillow, or rolled over. When I got up after an uneasy night it turned out the crew was already sorting out its second haul – in summer a flyshooter’s day starts early.



Before he joined the SL-9 crew, Marnix had worked on a beam trawling vessel. Flyshooting is a very different way of fishing, he tells me, much more complicated than beam trawling. A flyshooting set starts with the unloading of the end of the first of two ropes, with two pairs of buoys attached to it. One pair could easily be mistaken for giant dinosaur eggs for their shape and size, if it weren’t for their bright orange hue: their job is plain and simply to be seen. The other two hold a piece of rope close to the surface so it can be picked up later on. Then the vessel draws one half of a diamond shape in the sea, releasing a rope of about three and a half kilometres. At the end of the first rope the crew unload the net, and draw the other half of the diamond shape with the second rope. When we near the end of the second rope we can see the orange dinosaur eggs in the distance. Now comes the most difficult part, Marnix says. The crew stand ready on the side of the boat to throw out a hook-and-line between the two small buoys. If one misses, another stands ready to give it a shot, but if he also misses, Marnix needs to set the boat in reverse, risking getting the rope entangled in the ship’s propeller. When the crew have caught the rope, the hauling of the net starts.


To understand the hauling of a flyshoot net, imagine a diamond-shaped square of about three square kilometres. That is slightly smaller than Central Park in New York, twice the centre of Utrecht, or, for that matter, most of Wageningen:


You are standing at one corner of the square, and in the opposite corner, about two and a half kilometre from you, there is a fishing net. Two ropes go from the fishing net to you, laid out along the borders of the square. As you haul in the rope, you will see that the net does not move immediately to you – first the two ropes will move to the centre of the square, driving all that can move and happens to be on the square to the area between you and the net. When finally the net starts moving towards you most of the fish within the square will be in the net’s path. Every time this big ball of fish is hauled in Marnix runs down to see for himself. It is like opening a Christmas present: what do we get this time?

Snapshot 1 (27-07-2017 21-56)


Besides its fuel efficiency and its limited effects on the seafloor, a big advantage of flyshooting is that it is a very clean way of fishing. I could hardly see any starfish, brittle stars, of other not-so-mobile bottom dwellers in the catch that are much more abundant in that of beamtrawl vessels. The catch consisted mostly of fish species such as gurnard, mullet, whiting, dab, plaice, and mackerel, but, admittedly, also some shark and ray species. If only we could avoid those, as well as the whiting, the crew say. It is not a very valuable fish and it takes more work than gurnard and mullet as it needs to be stripped. But like all bottom fisheries, it is extremely difficult to pick the species you want.

SL9 sorteerband

Therefore, the fishermen experience the landing obligation as a big thunder cloud hanging over their heads. I appreciate the need to reduce discards, or at least to improve its survival rate, but to me the landing obligation comes across as an unnecessarily blunt instrument. Flyshooting is one of the cleanest, most sustainable ways of fishing, but even they cannot cherry-pick their catch. The crew sorted out the catch four in a row; to meet the landing obligation would require one or two more crew members, and a lot of storage space for catch that will eventually be destroyed. If this is really going to be implemented, they said, I will stop fishing. We need to develop ways to address discarding, but this is not the way to do it.

SL9 sorteerband 2

Let’s see if we can squeeze in two more here

So long, and thanks

Travelling with the SL-9 has been a massive experience for me, and I want to thank the entire crew, Marnix, William, Sandy, Colin, and Toon for their hospitality. And thanks to Arie, for organizing this!

SL9 Minionpak

Gripe your oars! Clutch your souls!

“Oars! Oars!” he intensely whispered, seizing the helm–“gripe your oars, and clutch your souls, now! My God, men, stand by! Shove him off, you Queequeg–the whale there!–prick him!–hit him! Stand up–stand up, and stay so! Spring, men–pull, men; never mind their backs–scrape them!–scrape away!” (Herman Melville, Moby Dick)

Although I suspect two days on a Dutch flyshooter (English info) is probably going to be somewhat less heroic than a journey around the world on a nineteenth-century whaling vessel.

Yes, I’m finally doing it. After years of teaching students all about the economics of the fishery I’m finally getting on board an actual fishing vessel to see what life’s like on board. Tonight I’m boarding the SL-9 Johanna for a 2-3 day trip on the North Sea.

What do I expect to learn from this? It is easy to think that anything you want to know, you can get from books, journal articles, or interviews with experts. But you can only do that if you know you don’t know – that’s when you ask. If you don’t know you don’t know you wouldn’t ask. And there is a lot of stuff out there you don’t know you don’t know. And then there is the more literary stuff that you will never find in the economics textbooks: how does it feel to be stuck on a boat for days with fellow fishers? What does it sound and smell like? How does it feel to feed the seagulls your very own acidic curry of breakfast and seasickness pills?

More updates soon.

Secrets of a fiddle

Perhaps the old fiddle can teach the new mandolin a few tricks

No musical instrument evokes a sense of mystery like a fiddle does. (The difference between a fiddle and a violin? A violin is usually in tune.) For a guitar you can go to the nearest instrument shop to buy a Taylor or a Martin. For a bagpipe or a hurdy-gurdy you order one from a maker after shopping around at the Le Son Continu Festival. I recently bought a beautiful A-type mandolin from a maker in Breda, The Netherlands after trying it out at Gooikoorts. And all those instruments have proper brand labels on them that are protected by international law. You hardly find the kind of counterfeiting you see in the clothing industry.

Don’t believe the label

I have no idea, however, where my fiddle comes from, who made it, who played on it, or how old it is. I bought it from a fiddler in the Irish music scene in The Netherlands who had bought it on a flee market – or so he said – but I have no idea where that was or from whom he bought it. There is a small label inside saying “Anno 17 [blank] Carlo Bergonzi fece in Cremona”. Carlo Bergonzi was a world famous violin maker, famous for being the finest apprentice of the great Stradivarius. He is also famous for the numerous fake labels in violins with his name on them. So I’m not exactly inclined to take the label very seriously. Millions of violins were made in the region now known as Germany and the Czech Republic with such labels, apparently because they were modelled after Bergonzi’s design. So I guess my fiddle is one of those.

Wait – that wasn’t me

So how old is this fiddle then? I am no expert in this, and I know you should never trust the internet (at least that’s what I tell my students), but a little browsing here and there brings me to a range between 1870 and 1940. That is a long time. Still, it’s an intriguing idea that this fiddle of mine is probably at least 76 years old – older than both my parents. Who played it since? What did they play on it? Surely it was not all high-brow classical music, considering that it is not exactly a high-brow instrument. For folk music it’s perfect: it is fairly loud, especially with the steel strings I usually put on it. But recently I changed strings (I am looking for a somewhat warmer tone), and while doing so I noticed the wear marks on the fingerboard under the D string (see picture). Note how they go all the way up to the body of the fiddle. This is where you get when you play third position or higher. I never play third position, especially not on the D string, so I’m sure it wasn’t me! All music I play (Irish, Dutch, and French traditional music) is in first position. And I’m so bad at it I can’t even play vibrato, let alone higher positions! Playing in the second or third position is more common in gypsy music though, as well as in some east European traditions. So perhaps a gypsy fiddler earned his daily bread with it, or it was a classical violin player after all.


MSEAS Brest: My impressions

Yes, I brought the fiddle, and
no, I did not play it.

Tonight is my last night in Brest after an intensive and massively enjoyable conference on Understanding marine socio-ecological systems: including the human dimension in Integrated Ecosystem Assessments (MSEAS). It’s been one of those events where you soak up loads and loads of impressions, which take time to digest, which I just did today in the magnificent Océanopolis – I figured that would be an apt place to reflect on the human dimensions of marine management. So here are my thoughts.

MSEAS did much, much more than the average economics conference to stimulate debate and to provoke creative ideas. I much enjoyed the open and creative atmosphere that brought together people from fields as diverse as biology, economics, and anthropology. As far as I have seen in all discussions people were very open and respectful to each other’s views. Which is different from what I have seen in some of the more disciplinary or conservation-oriented conferences. Oh, and getting a cartoonist capture the sessions was an excellent move. He was not just funny, he actually contributed to the debate and gave us fresh new insights. More input from artists next time please!

Beth Fulton on people’s trust in models

Boy, do I envy this generation of young researchers working in this field. The Young Researchers Workshops gave them the chance to pose questions to more experienced researchers in the field on all kinds of issues. (I felt to old to ask a question and too young to answer one.) I wish EAERE had this when I did my PhD!

From the presentations and keynote lectures I got the overall impression that there is a particular need for social indicators (other than economic ones, and employment), analyses of governance and institutions, and further integration of the whole range of issues in analyses and assessments. The topics were clearly skewed towards fisheries, which is a shame given the growing importance of other sectors, but also understandable given that this was an initiative by people within the ICES network. I was somewhat surprised to notice that there was not a single cost-benefit analysis, especially considering that the OECD’s Ocean Economy report explicitly calls for more cost-benefit analyses of ocean management.

Shame she wasn’t there second
time I visited the Océanopolis

I was particularly enthusiastic about some of the qualitative research that shone a new light on economic analyses. Edwin van Helmond presented an analysis of Dutch fisher behaviour where interviews with fishers helped resolve a number of puzzles in the data that statistical analysis could never have solved. Matthias Kokorsch presented the results of a series of interviews he did with Icelandic fishers on the effects of the tradable quota system in that country.

Slow sessions are just not my thing. I went to the Sunday session in the Tara Inn: there were loads of people, the atmosphere was great, but the music just did not appeal to me. It’s not the pace: there’s nothing wrong with playing a bit slower if you can’t keep up with the standard speed. In fact it’s better than playing above your level! But the playing was sloppy. Luckily I did get the chance to see some of the local traditions at the very last evening at a Fest Deiz!


Dutch biologists complain about publishing culture in academia

An interesting article on the current academic climate in the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad: biologists complain about the pressure in the current academic climate not to try to replicate (let alone refute) other scientists’ results, but to exaggerate the results of your own research.

“In my field there are articles in Nature, Cell or Science, of which all experienced people know: this can’t be right,” says Hans Clevers, director of the Hubrecht Instituut in Utrecht and former president of the Dutch Academy of Science, “but rarely does somebody write that explicitly in an article. So every now and again I am approached at a conference by a PhD researcher from a remote university who has been trying for years to replicate that publication. It is very inefficient.” […] Ecologist Raymond Klaassen of Groningen University blames the “short-winded academic climate, that focuses on scoring.” “If you find a deviating pattern in one year, then the current practice is to publish that with a lot of ballyhoo in as high-ranking a journal as you can.”

The Dutch word used in the original article (which I translated here as “short-winded”) is “hijgerig”: from hijgen, Dutch for “to pant”. It evokes an image of heavy competition and short-termism. It reminds me of the atmosphere at a high-ranking Dutch university that has made quite a name in behavioural economics: scoring was the norm, in the best economics journals, but I saw little of a long-term research agenda. Nevertheless, I don’t believe it got as bad there as the biologists describe in this article (knock on wood). I do see it in fisheries science: 2048, anyone?

Should we care about fisheries employment?

I’m in Malta now at a conference on economic advice to fisheries management, and one of the recurring themes is the loss of jobs when the same amount is caught by ever fewer, but bigger vessels. It is one of the major arguments against ITQs: when you make quota freely tradeable they end up in the hands of the firms that are willing to pay more for catch quota than other firms. That is because these firms expect to catch the same amount at lower prices, for example because they have economies of scale. So it is not surprising that these firms are usually bigger, and therefore ITQs tend to concentrate in the hands of a few large-scale firms and vessels, at the expense of small-scale ones. Should we care? Rögnvaldur Hannesson triggered a fair amount of debate stating that the best that governments can do is to set the Total Allowable Catch and let the industry figure out how to catch it, by whom, with what gear, and when. This was not exactly unexpected: Hannesson has written a book called “The Privatization of the Ocean” and I have heard him make similar arguments at other conferences. But I must say I’m undecided.

Hands off!
The main argument in favour of the hands-off approach is efficiency: we catch the same amount at lower costs. Moreover, no economy is set in stone: change happens (Chris Costello made a similar statement), and one of the drivers of that change is that some firms lose out to firms that do stuff better. The Netherlands had a thriving textile industry in towns like Tilburg and Enschede, but all of this has disappeared as most of the industry moved to low-wage countries in Asia. The same happened to our coal industry in the province of Limburg as coal could not compete to other energy sources. We have not protected those industries (we probably could not have done so anyway), but of course we do offer a social safety net to the people who lost their jobs. Farms are another example: they become bigger and bigger all the time, with only zoning and environmental regulations to stop them. Why should fisheries be any different? Moreover, arguments of employment are misleading. “Jobs are costs,” economists like to say: employing many people in a fishery, when those same people could have been productive in other sectors like plumbing, farming, or baking bread, is a waste of human resources.

Hands on!
The argument against the hands-off approach is that many local economies depend on fishing for employment and income. Jobs do have opportunity costs, but when the alternative is that former fishers sit idle on the shore, collecting welfare payments and getting quite frustrated with writing yet another pointless application letter, you can wonder whether the cost savings justify that sort of misery. Jobs are more than a way of earning an income: people derive their self-worth from them, they are people’s way to meet other people, to be not only economically, but also socially active. Closing the coal mines has been disastrous for mining towns in Limburg, and even more so in England (most of the celebrations of Margaret Thatcher’s demise were in former mining towns). As farms become bigger and fewer, villages are losing inhabitants, as well as shops, in an ever more miserable downward spiral. This process can be stopped or slowed by regulating ITQ trade, for example to make sure that quota remain in a particular region, or that some of them are owned by local small-scale fishers.

But then again, where does it stop? Should governments decide what a fisheries sector should look like? But if we do so for fishers, why not for farmers? Aquaculture? Shops? Shoemakers? Should we have protected telegraph operators from the pernicious impact of telephone?

What Back To The Future Day says about scenario development

As many, many websites show, Back To The Future II got a few things right – and many things wrong. What I find most intriguing is not so much the stuff the movie projected into 2015 but failed to materialize (hoverboards, flying cars), as what the movie did not see coming (notably, the replacement of fax machines by the Internet). But it’s easy to ridicule such projections with what we know now – and let’s not forget it was an entertainment movie, not an academic study in futurology.

What’s more, if only Elsevier had waited one day, our VECTORS scenario paper would have been made available online exactly on the day Marty McFly arrives in the future! Actually, Back To The Future II is a perfect illustration of the merits and limits of scenario studies. When we developed the VECTORS scenarios I heard many responses like “it’s science fiction”, “we don’t know what the future will be like”, and so on. And it’s true: we don’t know what the future will be like, which is why you want to develop several scenarios in order to explore the bandwidth of possible outcomes. The variation in scenarios is more important than any (misguided) notion of accuracy or likelihood. In fact, it is better to ditch likelihood altogether and settle for ‘plausibility’. As we describe in the paper, this turned out to be a difficult thing for academics as you need to get out of your ivory comfort zone and speculate.

The reason I find the fax machines in the movie intriguing is that it shows how we tend to extrapolate current trends into the future: fax machines were becoming ubiquitous around 1980, just when the movie was made. So we can’t blame the movie makers for extrapolating that trend into a future where just about every street corner would have a fax machine. But then, what else can we do? Of course there are dangers to extrapolation, especially if you have good reasons to assume that a given trend will not hold outside your range of observations. Nevertheless, no matter how plausible (and probable) your extrapolation, the probability that it comes true exactly as you estimated is precisely zero. Again: it is the variation around that extrapolation that is much more interesting than the extrapolation itself.