Ole Nielsen says he’s seen it all. He was born in the small town of Gilleleje on the north coast of Zealand 70 years ago and has lived there ever since, working in the family trade as a fisherman.
He stands in the cockpit of the Louise, a trim but powerful blue-hulled trawler, 15 meters from propeller to prow. The boat is his fourth and is named after his daughter. A flag snaps in the brisk breeze coming in off the Baltic Sea as he prepares the hull, which is filled with ice in preparation for tonight’s catch. Nielsen likes to fish alone, with no deckhands, as he has always done.
“When I started out I was 14. Back then there were no problems, you could go out and catch whatever you wanted, eel, herring, cod, anything you can think of,” he says. “Now there’s more and more rules. It’s become a very big problem to be a fisherman today. Not just here in Gilleleje, but all over Denmark.”
Nielsen is referring to the Common Fisheries Policy that sets quotas and regulations for catch, trawler sizes and working conditions for EU members. In December, Denmark’s 2017 cod quota in the Baltic and Kattegat was reduced by 47 percent from the year before to 2768 tons. In 2012, Danish fishermen were allowed to catch 9380 tons.
Nielsen feels that the quotas place unnecessary strain on small-scale fishing operations like his own.
“How can they decide what I can and cannot fish if they don’t know how my boat works, and how I fish, before they negotiate? All these marine biologists that politicians like to use to support their arguments know that we are right. I’ve even taken a few of them out fishing myself. So why don’t they listen to us?”
Small fishermen such as Nielsen are also under pressure from the rising cost of fishing licenses, which are increasingly being snapped up by multinational firms that operate large trawlers. As the number of active fishing vessels has dropped over the past decade, the number of fishermen in Denmark has also dropped, from around 3200 in 2005 to 1900 today, according to broadcaster DR.
The town Rødvig is among those to suffer from the downturn in the fishing industry, with boarded up shops lining the highstreet.
“But it’s not just about us, you know,” says fisherman Jan Hansen, pointing toward the shipyard on the other side of Rødvig harbour.
“If the fishermen here lose their jobs, there won’t be any boats left in the harbour. No boats means no jobs for the wharf staff, painters or maintenance crews. And if they lose their jobs, it will slowly start to affect the local economy, and everything will change. It already has.”
Euroscepticism isn’t uncommon in the fishing community, whose members argue that the quotas do not have to be this low in order to maintain healthy fish stocks.
“Just look at history,” says Hansen. “There have been always been fish in the sea. Look at the amount of cod we have caught just today. Of course there have been times when stocks have been low, but it has always replenished itself. Politicians should just let nature behave like it always has, instead of causing trouble for people like us.”
The cuts in Baltic cod quotas were condemned by lobby group Europeche, which argued that a higher quota would still allow the stock of cod in the Eastern Baltic to grow. Instead, the European Commission chose deeper cuts in a bid to grow the stock at a faster rate – at the expense of fishermen’s livelihoods.
The Danish Fisheries Union was also disappointed by the steep quota cut.
“They have negotiated with no consideration for the economic realities of fishermen,” vice president Kim Kær Hansen stated in a press release in October. “The cod stock is growing, but there won’t be any local fishermen to catch them after 2017.”
The union subsequently lobbied for economic compensation for affected fishermen. They were successful, and in December the government announced it would spend 24 million kroner on compensation for around 400 affected fishing vessels.
“It can be devastating to have your source of income so drastically reduced,” environment and agriculture minister Esben Lunde Larsen stated. “It would be a shame if smaller vessels went bankrupt because of the tightened quotas. This economic bailout will hopefully keep them in business.”
Back in Gilleleje, Nielsen has finished the preparations for tonight’s trip.
“They throw around fancy words and lots of money, but they have no idea what it’s like out here,” he says, shaking his head as he casts off for another night on the ocean.
“Nobody is listening. Maybe if we leave the Union they will.” M