Nurturing the eel

Netherlands | Frisia | Dokkum

Aaltsje -‘little eel’ in Frysian language- Stellema is a young woman professional inland fisher in The Netherlands. “I was born to become an eel fisher”, she says. “Since I was a small kid I used to go fishing with my father and learnt the skill from him. When he stopped after 30 years of fishing, I took over.”

At first Aaltsje’s father had not expected her to take over from him, because she was trained as a primary school teacher and loved to work with children. Aaltsje says: “If I would not take over from my father, our fishing water would have to be returned to our Union of Inland Fishers to be divided among other inland fishers of our region. I did not like this idea, because my family had been fishing this water for several generations.” Aaltsje now hopes to combine fishing with educational activities for children about inland fisheries and the aquatic ecology.

Eel (Anguilla Anguilla) is the most important species for inland fishers in The Netherlands, and also for Aaltsje, because of both its commercial and cultural value. Aaltsje sells her eel to the auction, but her father also smokes a part of the eel catch and sells it from home. She is a member of the Frisian Union of Inland Fishers and actively participates in a pilot project for decentralized eel management, to secure healthy eel stocks for the future. When Aaltsje’s father started fishing there were still fifty professional inland fishers in her region. Today she is one of only fourteen left. The main causes were the reduction in eel stocks, and the many fishing restrictions for professional inland fishers.

The reasons for the decline in eel stocks are complex, and views differ widely, among all there are barriers created by large numbers of hydraulic engineering works such as dykes, weirs and pumping stations, constructed for coastal protection and reclamation of land.
Another problem is that many inland waters also have become unsuitable as habitat for the eel. The major causes are industrialization and urbanization that means pollution.
Finally, the emergence of recreational fisheries also contributed to the decline in professional fisheries. Around 80 percent of the country’s inland waters are owned by the national state, while the other 20 percent are owned by provincial and local governments, who lease out fishing rights for these waters to professional and recreational fishers. As a result of shift in priorities, the Dutch government decided to split the fishing rights, allocating fishing rights for eel to professional fishers, while allocating fishing rights for other species to recreational fishers. The professional inland fishers therefore became practically fully dependent on the capture of eel, and with the reduction of eel fisheries, their livelihood came under serious threat. The existing leasehold system also resulted in a process of fragmentation of inland fishing waters with most holdings becoming too small to provide sufficient livelihood to a professional fisher’s household.

Aaltsje’s father was one of the lucky professional eel fishers in The Netherlands who had survived these changes. It is now up to Aaltsje to continue the generations old fishing enterprise. The inland waters of her region, the province of Friesland in the north of The Netherlands, are still a healthy habitat for the eel. The fishers of her region are well organized and have managed the fish stocks for generations. Thanks to the efforts of the Frisian Union of Inland Fishers, a yearly quota for eel is being kept and controlled by the association itself. The total quota for the region is fixed based on data provided by the fishers and in collaboration with scientists, and then divided among the Union members on commonly agreed principles.

After pulling her fykes nets out of the water, Aaltsje makes an estimation of her total catch of the day and sends the information over mobile telephone to NatuurNetwerk , the organization that collects the data and oversees the quota. She also measures all the eels she harvested and releases too short ones back in the water, again reporting this to NatuurNetwerk. “The bigger ones fetch a better price, so why should I not give the small ones a chance to grow big. And also a chance to migrate to their spawning grounds.”. Aaltsje adds “I am responsible for my own area where I have exclusive fishing rights and that is why I feel encouraged to also invest in it. We only have eel fishing rights, the fishing rights for other species are allocated to the recreational fisher’ organizations. But because we collaborate with them in a fishery management plan, they allow us to keep some of the by-catch of commercial value. And this provides a welcome additional income. But it is sad that with the splitting of the fishing rights by the government, we have become dependent on the attitude of the leadership of the recreational fisheries organizations for a share of the fish stocks.”

The Frisian Union of Inland Fishers in engaged in various projects of data collection and eel stock monitoring; eel re-stocking in healthy habitats; an eel reserve; and a catch, transfer and release project for silver, or adult, eels to help them to migrate to their spawning grounds. “Only by collaboration can we really achieve some real impact.” says Aaltsje. “And in this way we also win respect from society. We inland fishers have become marginalized and the people of our country hardly know of our existence and work. We have to defend ourselves against propaganda of environmentalists who portray fishers as the biggest culprits of declining fish stocks. This could be the case in some areas, but here in Friesland we have fished for many generations in a sustainable way. Our Union has played an important role in this. We have built good ecological knowledge, which has proven to be useful in monitoring and management of the fish stocks. Now we also are in contact with organizations like Slow Food  and they are very interested in our artisanal fish products and traditional practices. Hopefully they will help us in educating the consumers and also the restaurants. Restaurants still often buy cheap, imported fish or illegally caught fish because they do not want to pay us a fair price. People need to understand that without paying a fair price to us small scale producers, we will not be able to survive and take care of the inland waters’ fish resources, and in particular of our eel.”

By Cornelie Quist, member of ICSF

Where to buy the eel of the Frisian Union of Inland Fishers:

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