Thursday, 20 August 2020 09:28

Being a coastal fisher in Denmark has become more attractive

EM4 20 DenmarkRegulatory conditions have improved the last years

This article was features in EUROFISH Magazine 4 / 2020.

The regulatory framework under which the small-scale fishery in Denmark operates has gone through several changes over the last years. The revisions seek to secure its future, make it even more sustainable, and give young people an incentive to join.

It is just after 05.30 as the vessel leaves the harbour on a clear calm morning at the end of May. The sea is utterly still and Morten Krogh, a young coastal fisher, busies himself in the cabin pulling on oilskins and filling out his logbook as the boat pulls out. The vessel is sailing from Vedbæk, north of Copenhagen, along the Sound (Øresund), the narrow channel of water between the west coast of southern Sweden and northern part of Zealand, the largest Danish island. Vedbæk is one of some 50 Danish harbours that are part of havfriskfisk (literally, sea-fresh fish). Started in 2012, it is a website ( that enables consumers interested in fish straight from the sea to sign up to receive a text message. The SMS announces the arrival time of the vessel and the species for sale. The species vary slightly from season to season but cod and plaice are staples with turbot, brill, mackerel, and the odd sea trout available in spring and early summer, as well as cod and lumpfish roe in the first quarter of the year. Fishers like Morten Krogh use the facility to sell their catch to consumers without involving middlemen—a win-win situation for fisher and consumer alike.


Gillnetting, a low-impact fishing method

Mr Krogh is a member of the association for low-impact coastal fishing (Foreningen for Skånsomt Kystfiskeri) a group of coastal fishers that uses gear, mostly gillnets, which has little or no impact on the environment. The association has been at the forefront of efforts to get a better deal for coastal fishers, in particular those using lowimpact gear. A gillnet is essentially a wall of netting in the water at the desired depth. The wall is stretched by a buoy and an anchor at either end and is kept vertical thanks to floats on the top edge (the floatline) and weights at the bottom (the groundline). According to the FAO, gillnets are generally selective in terms of the species they catch depending on the mesh size, though there are concerns that they entangle seabirds in some area. Also, if gillnets go adrift, they continue ghost fishing as the filament that they are made of takes a long time to degrade, and when it does, it adds to plastic pollution in the water. On the other hand, gillnet fishing has little physical impact on the sea floor and it is fuel efficient as measured by fuel consumption per kilo of fish. The gear itself is relatively inexpensive making it a favoured choice among artisanal and small-scale fishermen. Mr Krogh attended a fishing school in Thyboron on the Danish mainland’s west coast where students get to try different kinds of fisheries to see which suits them best. On graduating he spent a year on a trawler fishing with bottom trawls for Nephrops. It is a good way of fishing, he says, but it does plough up the seabed. It is also tough on the family; he was at sea for 12 days at a time, 36 hours from land. In the end he elected to move to Zealand and fish with gill nets from Vedbæk, which he has been doing for the last 12 years. Now, he grins, I go out four or five times a week depending on the weather and am back at 13.00- in time to pick up the kids.

Nets are typically emptied every 24 hours giving a very fresh high-quality product

As the vessel sails north along the coast the first of his buoys heave into view. The nets they signpost are about 4.5m high with a 75 mm mesh. They are usually set in the evening, before sundown, to target the cod that head towards the coast as daylight fades to feed on crabs and then swim back out to sea in the morning. Ideally the nets should be emptied every 24 hours to get the best quality fish. If they stay longer than that, the fish can perish in the nets and are no longer quite as fresh when landed. However, a bit further north, he uses trammel nets which form a two-layered wall of netting. Th e mesh size at 80 mm is bigger than that of the gill nets and so are the fish that are caught. Even so they sometimes slip back into the sea when being landed on board, which is why he likes keeping these nets out longer than the gill nets. The fish are then more firmly entangled in the net, reducing the chances of losing them. The sea has a lot of muck in it at the moment, he says, and if the nets are in the water for too long, they trap some of this detritus, mainly seaweed but also jellyfish, and have to be cleaned. With the trammel nets he has to weigh the different factors to decide how long he should keep the nets in the water. Marked buoys and flags signal the position of the nets and while all fishers use similar equipment, Mr Krogh is confident that he would recognise his gear under any circumstances. However, as a backup, the position of all his nets is also recorded on the echo sounder. As the vessel approaches the first net he prepares the deck; stacked fish boxes are shifted, a metal surface that functions as a table is placed under the net hauler, and the area where the empty net will be stored gets a brief inspection. Everything has to be shipshape so that as far as possible nothing interrupts the burst of high voltage activity that the arrival of the net on board will engender. The net is threaded through the net hauler, an electrically operated pully that pulls the net on board and feeds it to the fisherman. As the net arrives on the table the still-wriggling fish are disentangled one at a time, a process that can take a few minutes, sorted by species, graded roughly by weight, and tossed into waiting baskets. Flounder is returned to the sea; it does not fetch anything on the market and it usually survives its period of confinement in the net. One hapless specimen, however, gets nabbed by a gull before it hits the water and is swallowed whole! Cod, brill, turbot, mackerel, the occasional sea trout, and plaice are all welcomed aboard. The fish must conform to minimum size requirements for which Morten Krogh has a scale on board. But he has the numbers in his head and can assess the size of a fish just by looking at it, so it rarely leaves its place. As the net surrenders its contents, it is roughly untangled and stowed away. The process is continuous, suspended only briefly at intervals, when the fish come in faster than the fisher can remove them. Once all 25 m of the net has been processed it is run through a second machine which further untangles it and also removes any debris from the sea that may still adhere to the mesh.

Coastal fishers’ primary species, cod, is in poor shape in the Baltic

Nets are set depending on the currents, and the areas he places his nets vary from season to season. The trick is to find a place that is shielded from the currents, he says. There is no limit to the number of nets a commercial fisher can deploy, but the amount of fish that is caught is regulated by his quotas. Like many coastal fishers, Mr Krogh’s livelihood depends on catching cod, quotas for which have been falling steadily and often abruptly. In 2020 for instance the TAC (Total Allowable Catch) for cod in the Western Baltic plunged 60% to 3,806 tonnes. This sudden fall in the TAC is something of a mystery for him as his catches of cod have been stable and the size of the individual fish is generally good. Skinny cod seen in other parts of the Baltic is not something he has experienced. But a recent report* from the Department of Food Resource Economics describing the status of Danish fisheries points to cod in the Baltic Sea as one of the stocks that is in very poor health despite a reduction in fishing pressure since 2000. In the western Baltic, three indicators morality, spawning stock biomass, and the marine environment are all described as “not good,” while in the eastern Baltic parasite infestations, predation by seals, hypoxia, and a lack of feed have contributed to skinny fish, a spawning stock biomass at historically low levels, and the almost complete absence of large individuals. ICES subdivision 23, the Sound, where Mr Krogh lays his nets, together with subdivisions 22 and 24, are home to the Western Baltic cod stock, which in SD24 coexists with the Eastern Baltic stock. Cod catches in SD23 at 1,167 tonnes in 2019 were 15% of total cod catches in subdivisions 22-24. In the Sound fishing with trawls is banned and commercial catches are mainly with gill nets set by Danish and Swedish fishers. The trawling ban, which has been in place since 1932, may be partly responsible for the normal-sized and not skinny fish landed by fishers in the Sound.

After a long struggle, the coastal fishery may have turned the corner

The coastal fishery in Denmark has been the subject of much debate in recent years. It has been hailed for its social and economic contribution to small coastal communities and for its generally environmentally benign way of fishing. Yet the introduction of individual transferable quotas in the mid-2000s led to quotas being bought up by larger vessel owners and landings being concentrated in the largest harbours. A report from the National Audit Office (Rigsrevisionen) in 2017 found that the quota share of the 16 largest owners of pelagic fish quotas increased from 53% in 2012 to 66% in 2017, while in the demersal fishery, the quota share of the 10 largest quota owners increased from 40% in 2011 to 47% in 2017. According to Statistics Denmark, in 2018, 77% of the fleet’s gross output per vessel came from vessels larger than 18 m up from 74% in 2011 and there was a corresponding decline in gross output per vessel among the sub-18 m vessels from 22% to 18% in the same period. Similarly, 246 small harbours attracted a landed value of DKK190 m, while the 5 largest had DKK2.3bn in landings. The big owners gain advantages purely through their size. According to Hanne Winter, a biologist and political advisor to the association for lowimpact coastal fishing, for a big fishing company it is easier to get low-cost loans from banks, than it is for a small-scale fisherman. Complying with all the rules governing the fisheries is also more difficult when it is a single fisher in a small vessel at sea for some 115 days in the year than it is for a large quota owner. These factors could lead to the big players cementing their hold on the industry and the smaller ones getting increasingly marginalised. In fact, a report in 2016 commissioned by the association for low-impact coastal fishing highlighted that between 2013 and 2015 almost 16% of the smaller vessels fishing with gillnets left the fishery, despite the fact that their quotas were getting larger. The view from the other side is naturally a bit different. Esben Sverdrup-Jensen is director of the Danish Pelagic Producers’ Organisation which represents 11 vessels, landing approximately 450,000 tonnes of pelagic fish or about half the total Danish fish landings. The fish is used both for industrial purposes and for human consumption. According to him, consolidation in the sector following the introduction of transferable quotas in 2002 allowed owners to convert an ageing fleet into one of the world’s most advanced and fuel efficient. Product quality also soared as a result of the modernisation, and today herring, for example, is exported to highly quality-conscious markets in Germany and the Netherlands.

Vessel size and length of trips distinguish coastal fi shers from others

But what actually defines a coastal fishery? It is in fact not the distance from the coast that decides whether fishing is coastal, or at least not directly. Martin Andersen from the Department in the Ministry of Environment and Food works mainly with national regulations and in particular the coastal fisheries scheme. He explains that 80% of the trips must be 48 hours or less, if a fisher wishes to receive the quota premium which is the incentive to join the coastal fishing scheme. In addition, his vessel must be under 17 m. Not all vessels in this length segment use low-impact fishing gear, of the total some three fifths use gill nets and Danish seines and about 30% fish with trawls (2018). The association for lowimpact coastal fishing says that between 2013 and 2015 some 16% of the smaller gillnetting vessels vanished. The association’s concern, voiced in a report from 2016, was that the disappearance of low-impact fishing would have negative consequences for economic activity on land and remove a sustainable fishery with low discard rates and minimal environmental impact as well as eliminate a source of fresh and valuable raw material. The association also argued that gill nets, hooks, and purse seines had the lowest emissions per unit of fish caught. In addition, low impact vessels typically landed their catches in small harbours around the country contributing to the economy in areas where it was needed most. The association therefore proposed a new model that would give extra quotas to the lowimpact fishing sector. The concerns of the association resonated at the political level and some three years ago, concerned by the consolidation of fishing activities in the largest Danish harbours and the concentration of fishing quotas in the hands of a few big players, four parliamentary parties proposed a growth and development package for the fisheries sector that aimed to strengthen the coastal fishing segment and bolster sustainability, among other goals. The proposal enjoined the government to create a closed scheme for coastal fishers that limited the trade of vessel quotas, power, and tonnage to owners within the scheme. Assets could not be transferred or rented to owners outside the scheme. The idea was to secure the future of the coastal fishery by ensuring that these assets stayed within the coastal fishing scheme in perpetuity. While a vessel’s quota, engine capacity, and tonnage once inside the closed scheme could not be traded out, it was possible to acquire these assets from vessels outside the scheme and bring them in.

Coastal fishing schemes reverse decline in this fleet segment

The closed scheme supplemented an existing “open” scheme—a temporary three-year arrangement after which the vessel could leave the scheme. The proposal also sought to attract new fishermen to the fisheries sector by offering assistance to establish themselves, additional quotas, and by activating unused capacity. The proposal was also intended to increase the sustainability of coastal fisheries, an ambition accomplished in two ways: by restricting the size of the vessels that could be classified as coastal fishing vessels to 17 m in the open scheme and 15 m in the closed scheme; and by offering additional quotas of cod, sole, and plaice according to a formula that gave proportionately more weight to vessels fishing with low impact gear. By some measures, the proposal has benefited the coastal fishing sector. The total number of active coastal fishing vessels with an annual turnover above EUR36,000 (DKK270,000) has increased since 2016 by 14% to 184 in 2018 which should be viewed in the context of a 7% fall in vessel numbers in the total Danish fleet. However, the number of low-impact vessels in the open scheme declined by more than half to 49 vessels over the same period, while the number in the closed scheme, which was introduced in 2017, stayed stable at 35 vessels. At the end of last year the parties in Parliament agreed to further strengthen the coastal fisheries sector in an acknowledgement of the economic, social, and environmental role it plays as well its cultural and historical importance in many parts of the country. Although a report from Copenhagen University showed that the coastal fishery had become more robust since 2016 it was also clear that developing the coastal fishery called for a long-term strategy that would secure the future of small harbours, ensure a supply of young people interested in joining the fishery, make the fishery more sustainable, and promote the use of low-impact gear. The agreement retained the two coastal fishing schemes, the temporary and the permanent, introduced in 2017, although there are many more vessels in the temporary scheme. The agreement uses additional quotas of fish as an incentive to nudge fishers into using low-impact gear and into joining the permanent coastal fishing scheme. It also simplifies the rules governing eligibility for and allocation of these additional quotas. Other elements in the agreement specify that fishers who fully fish their quotas are entitled to a premium, relax certain rules for new fishermen regarding the permanent scheme, and tighten those governing the temporary scheme. The parties also agreed to a more comprehensive evaluation of the coastal fisheries regulation early in 2022.

Association seeks further measures to strengthen coastal fisheries

The association for low-impact coastal fishing, while acknowledging the agreement, made several suggestions at the end of last year to further strengthen the coastal fishery. Instead of having two coastal fishing schemes, it supports just having the permanent one on the grounds that only this scheme strengthens the coastal fishery by keeping all fishing capacity and quotas within it. The association would also like other vessel categories, such as the less active vessels, to be permitted to join the coastal fishery scheme. It proposes that further incentives should be given to coastal fishermen in the form of unused fishing capacity, priority for support from the EMFF, and targeted assistance to encourage them to switch to low-impact gear. Justifying the need for these incentives the association points to the number of jobs it creates at sea and on land, and the environmentally-friendly nature of the activity, which makes it a contributor to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Fishing is physically highly demanding—according to the FAO among the most demanding occupations in the world. Mr Krogh concurs; my body is smashed with all the lifting of heavy things and standing in strange positions. On top of that, a net will occasionally get caught in the propeller forcing him to hop into the water to disentangle it, a tolerable task in summer, but unpleasant, if not dangerous, most of the rest of the year. But for him the great attraction is the freedom it affords him to take his own decisions—without that I would not be a fisher, he says. For the moment however, he is committed. A couple of years ago he invested in a bigger fishing vessel, 3.5 m wide and 9.2 m long, with the possibility to expand the storage space on board with the help of planks placed in a metal frame. The bigger vessel means more space on board making fishing operations easier.

Efficiency is of the essence

The experience he has gained over the years has given him a good sense of his fishing area and the fishery, something that only develops over time and is not something to be given up lightly. It has also made him highly efficient on board. Not a second is wasted as the work demands something from him at all times—bringing the fish on board, cleaning the nets, stacking them, setting them again, sorting the fish, filling out logs, announcing his arrival and the species caught on and by text message, and, on the way back to the harbour, gutting and icing the fish. The speed of the latter is impressive with just a second or two spent on each fish. One has to be quick, he says, because sometimes there are 700-800 kg of fish on board that have to be cleaned in the half hour or so that it takes to arrive in the harbour. The roe season brings additional chores as it is removed from the cod and lumpfish, weighed, and placed separately in plastic bags, as the two products command a high price. Cod liver, although valuable, is generally too small in quantity to make removing it worthwhile, so it goes out along with the rest of the guts to feed the seagulls.

Lockdown cripples food service sector

Coastal fisheries as with other segments in the sector has suffered from the corona pandemic. The lockdown in Denmark hit the food service sector particularly hard as restaurants, cafes, bars, and hotels were forced to close. The lack of commercial buyers was partly mitigated by consumers who could buy directly from the fishermen. The first to buy the fish are private consumers. Most are individuals, but there are also buyers for restaurants. Whatever fish is left is sold at an auction. For most customers, the freshness of the fish, support for a local fisherman, and the price, outweigh having to deal with whole round (mackerel) or only gutted (most other species) fish. Mr Krogh gets a slightly higher unit price than he does from the auction, but for a consumer, it is still significantly cheaper than what she would pay a fishmonger or even a supermarket, where the fish can be caught up to two weeks before it is sold. For the rest of the fish, whatever the quantity, he has an arrangement under which a truck picks up the fish and takes it to the auction in Hundested, some 60 km away. Back in Vedbæk harbour the line of people waiting for the vessel to arrive seems longer than usual even considering the need for socially distanced queues. Of course, working from home as a result of the lockdown may have increased the number of consumers who can nip out during the day to buy some freshly caught fish. The pandemic is forecast to reduce the frequency of commuting to work as office-goers discover working from home can be as productive. If this change in lifestyle leads to more private customers for coastal fishermen, it may over time even make up for the loss of commercial buyers during the lockdown.

*(Nielsen, M., Dalskov, J., Andersen, J. L., Nielsen, R., Koed, A., Pedersen, J. K., ... Olesen, E. A., (2020). Situationsbeskrivelse af den danske fi skeri-, akvakultur og fi skeindustrisektor: Den Europæiske Hav- og Fiskerifond 2021-2027, 100 s., IFRO Udredning, Nr. 2019/26)