Dutch Blues

It can’t be easy being a Dutch fisherman these days.

The latest anti-fishing campaign in progress is focusing hard on the seine net fleet that operates in the Channel and Southern North Sea, portraying seine netting as a killer method that consumes everything in its path. But that’s a description that could apply to any method of fishing, and could just as easily be expanded to apply to most forms of food production.

It seems like only a few years ago that seine netting was being heralded as the low-damage alternative to beam trawling – and no doubt to a great extent, that’s exactly what it was. But times change and with it opinions.

You're left in no doubt about who the villain is supposed to be

While there are seine netters operating under a variety of flags, the campaign, spearheaded by Bloom, appears to be a vendetta aimed systematically at the Dutch, and the iconography is startling in its clear determination to identify a particular nation as the villain. The opprobrium being hurled is barely a hair’s breadth from… what? Let’s call it borderline racist.

The whole issue is far more complex than Bloom et al would have the general public believe as they seek to paint this portrait in simple black-and-white.

Dutch fishermen had explored seine netting long before the advent of fuel crisis that put the beam trawl fleet in the red, triggering a rush for alternative fishing methods. Like most things that Dutch fishermen do, they did this well. They also pushed at boundaries; bigger and heavier fly-shooting gear, and crucially, they took these techniques to vessels operated under other flags, the UK, Belgium and France.

The Dutch seine net fleet has long been capped at 24 licences, limited to 370gt and 750kW. Growth beyond that has been under Dutch ownership – while under other jurisdictions.

The Dutch-flagged fleet of seine netters is capped at 24 licences

The UK, French and Belgian authorities set their own rules on size, capacity, engine power, etc. The Dutch authorities and industry associations have zero say in what other flag states decide to do or not do in limiting engine power or any other criteria.

What further complicates the whole issue is that fishermen in France, where there has been vociferous opposition to the Dutch (owned) seine netters, have in increasing numbers been following their lead, investing in new vessels that can operate alongside their Dutch neighbours – and they have noticeably gone for technology developed for the Dutch fleet.

There’s a sizeable fleet of French seine netters now, both in the Channel and in the Bay of Biscay, with the issue blurred as there are genuinely French vessels and others that are simply French-flagged.

It’s clear that this fleet has been allowed to grow beyond what could be seen as sustainable, but there’s no single finger of blame that can be pointed in any direction, other than maybe at national administrations that failed to take notice and put a foot on the brakes. The Dutch fishermen, and their French counterparts, can hardly be blamed for doing their jobs well, and within the law.

All the same, the hatred seems to be going only one way, and is being adroitly manipulated by an NGO that has had practice of this divide-and-conquer method.

French fishermen have embraced the techniques pioneered in the North Sea by Dutch fishermen

It’s also noticeable that similar strategies have for decades been used against the Dutch pelagic trawlers – with barely a word about the Norwegian, Russian, Icelandic, Faroese, Scottish, Irish or any other pelagic vessels that work the North Atlantic.

Why focus on the Dutch?

It’s because these people are the softest of soft targets. They may push boundaries, like any fishermen, but by and large they stay on the right side of the law. Challenge them and they’ll see you in court, not up a dark alley, although if you drop boulders on fishing grounds they’ll go to the trouble of retrieving them and might have them delivered to your office.

Levelling accusations at the Dutch fishermen is as safe as you can get. They’ll make valiant efforts to respond to hysterical outbursts with measured logic. They don’t stoop to the dirty tricks of disseminating wild misinformation in the media or going as far as having contracts taken out on those who upset them – as happens in some parts of the world.

It would be interesting to see what happens when these NGOs decide to take on an adversary prepared to fight dirty.