Impressions of the North Sea Days 2017

This year’s North Sea Days had the motto “Time to set a different course”. I realised the motto also applied to my own research. After years of building bioeconomic models I have recently decided to focus on the normative questions of marine economics: how do we analyse tradeoffs between different uses, can we use the lessons learned from cost-benefit analysis in management strategy evaluations, and is CBA the right tool for problems as complicated and multifaceted as marine policy?

Anyway, here are my impressions of the North Sea Days, in no particular order.

Not everybody was ready to admit it, but the development of wind energy is now a key driver for Dutch North Sea policy. The current generative capacity is about 1 GW, to which the Dutch government plans to add another 10.5 GW between now and 2030. Eventually the North Sea should have about 35-75 GW worth of wind turbines. That is an incredible amount that also makes conservation NGOs uneasy.

I was shocked by the adamant refusal of conservationists (from whatever organisation) to even consider human interests when talking about protecting and restoring biodiversity. In a session on nature conservation I seemed to be the only participant answering “people” when asked which species I specialised in. When another participant had the tenacity to ask the question why we want to conserve nature the rest fell over him like a ton of bricks. I have heard suggestions like “increase fish biomass to 10-100 times current levels” (is that even physically possible?) and “ban the beam trawl” like nobody depends on fishing for a living. Ironically the conservation NGOs came across as the most reasonable voice, understanding that different objectives, including fishing, energy production, and conservation, need to coexist. Dirk Kraak, a Dutch fisher present at the North Sea Days, had a similar impression at another session (in Dutch).

It was therefore, again, quite clear that fishers are in a very difficult position. The world is changing, and so are the seas. Fishers need to share more and more of the sea with other uses and demands, where they used to have the entire area for themselves. Putting your foot down, as some are trying to do, is not going to stop this juggernaut. As difficult as it is, they will have to accommodate and try to make the best of a bad situation.

The session on cumulative ecological analysis demonstrated that like in any marine system, the web of activities, ecosystem components, and impacts on human well-being in the North Sea is incredibly complex. This is a huge complication for any form of policy appraisal (like CBA), which depends heavily on the delineation of the problem. This is difficult enough on land, but at sea, where everything hangs together with everything else, it seems near impossible.

Uncertainty is another key issue, and therefore so is adaptability of policies and institutions. How fast will sea levels rise? How will marine currents and ecosystems respond to big hard structures such as wind turbines? What will be the energy source of the future – wind, solar, tidal, biomass? Time may tell, but only at different temporal scale levels. We cannot wait for all uncertainties to be resolved, but we can develop institutions and policies that are able to adapt to new information.

All in all two incredibly inspiring days.

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.

MSEAS Brest: My impressions

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!

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?

Why are Dutch fish mongers so terrible?

For a country that controls a chunk of sea one and a half times its land mass, the Dutch are pathetic eaters of seafood. OK, granted – we’re rightly proud of our slightly-cured herring (which is mostly caught by the Norwegians) and our kibbeling, fried chunks of cod (although many Dutch consumers think kibbeling is a fish species). But for the rest we export most of our mussels, sole, and oysters to people who know properly how to appreciate them, like the French and the Belgians. Instead, we import a tasteless excuse for a fish like tilapia.

But the fish mongers aren’t helping either. Two weeks ago I was buying a tuna steak at the open market in Wageningen. (After my trip to The Philippines I had but one thing on my mind: I want to make that delicious ceviche with fresh ginger and coriander myself!) A youngish bloke for whom this must have been his way of earning his Saturday night drinks served me, and I asked him whether the tuna steak I was buying had been frozen. Silly question, I know – there is no way you can get tuna from its fishing grounds to a Wageningen market stall without freezing it somewhere along the way. “No, it’s all fresh,” he said. So where did it come from? That turned out to be a difficult question. “I don’t know,” he stumbled, looking at me as if I had just asked him about the sound of one hand clapping. “I should ask my boss.” “Pacific ocean,” said a colleague. OK, thanks. “Indian ocean,” said another colleague who looked like she was in charge. “Is that OK with you?” Sure, I was only curious – I wasn’t going to report you to Sea Shepherd or anything.

How can these people not know where their wares come from? I decided against asking the species, because I did not want to prolong their agony. I’m quite sure it was yellowfin anyway. But the limited information they had available was shocking. Even more shocking is the fact that they get away with it, because Dutch consumers just don’t give a rodent’s backside for quality when it comes to fish – let alone how it was caught, whether any other species had been caught in the process, and so on.

Last week I made this picture at the open market in Ede (just North of Wageningen):

This is what tong, or sole (solea solea) looks like; this is what schol, or plaice (pleuronectes platessa) looks like. You’d expect the orange spots should be a bit of a giveaway.

I guess every country gets the fish mongers it deserves.

Trash fishing in Pangandaran, Java

I visited the fishing village of Pangandaran, Java, during my holiday in Indonesia. It’s a beautiful place, delicious fresh grilled fish (ikan bakar), and you can watch the local fishing traditions.

I was shocked, however, by the sheer amount of litter in the sea, especially plastics. The problem is, apparently, that a nearby river discharges a lot of litter from upriver villages and towns, and the shape of the coast makes it a natural garbage collector. The result is heartbreaking: