Interview with Kobus Post former skipper of the UK 53, in his home-office. Kobus is a decommissioned plaice and sole fisher. He currently fishes for shrimp. Rein Snoek, a former fisherman, who nowadays inspects lifeboats, recommended us to speak to Kobus. The conversation took place at April 9th, 2011, during a residency in Urk, on the invitation of Museum the Pavilioens, Almere. We refer to this meeting in the film in the title: PROVISIONS.“It was a spring day when a fishermen explains these customs to us.”Also the title EXTRA IDENTITY is largely based upon the conversation with Kobus. The parts marked in yellow were included in the script of the staged scenes.
In 1932 the Zuiderzee was closed off. That was a disaster to Urk; the flag was flown at half-mast. In other words: our bread, our future was gone. I still have a booklet of my grandfather. I was named after him. He received a soft loan from the government in 1932, from the Zuiderzee Support Fund, because he lost his breadwinning. A film was made of this. It’s called: The last days of an island. If you didn’t see it you really should, because it is a beautiful film. I just can’t grasp that the people in the film aren’t Urkish. If you see these small men boasting… Those fishermen who boasted that they already made so much money on the North Sea, they got nothing. And that is how it was. If you were able to show that you had been fishing on the Zuiderzee for 100 percent, then you got money. If you were already fishing on the North Sea you didn’t get anything. So what happened: those so-called ambitious fishermen, who thought those small Zuiderzee fishermen lazy, they got stuck with their old scrap while the Zuiderzee fishermen got new boats. I have the booklet here. It lists exactly the repayments of my grandfather. Every week they had to repay a thaler or a guilder of the total catch, whatever they could miss.
Lonnie/Siebren: Since the late nineties the fishing industry finds itself in stormy weather. Many fishermen have chosen to decommission their trawlers, others are technically bankrupt, but try to keep going nonetheless. What do you think has caused this?
It all started when I was still a little boy. England, Scotland and Ireland were very large fishing nations. They had unlimited fleets in the Icelandic waters. It was all about Iceland. Cod, mackerel. I think Belgium had a hundred large boats. Germany had very large ships. They all sailed passed us, to Iceland. At some point Iceland drew a line of 200 miles (370 km) around its land. “This is our exclusive economic zone and you have to stay out of it.” Even the English marine got involved. They were shooting at each other. Then the United States said to Great Britain: Stop this! Iceland was a base of the United States to watch Russia.
So that whole fishery was finished for England, Ireland and Scotland, because Scotland was also just a small country. One day to the next their fishermen weren’t allowed to fish anymore and went bankrupt. That was a big disaster, because all those ships were scrapped, literally thousands. And right at that time the Netherlands came up with its beam trawlers, with sole and plaice. Great Britain was decommissioning while we were building our fleet in those years. But then the EEC came. In the Secret Agreement of The Hague; nobody knew about it, otherwise it wouldn’t have been a secret; we were divided up.
LS: What period are you speaking about?
K: My father came home, when I was 17. He was on the board of the fishery association. “Now they are talking about quotation. What that is I don’t know. We have to cut down because the sea is empty”, he said. I replied: “The sea is empty? They should come with us for a week.” We didn’t know where to take the fish to – there was so much of it.
Looking back quotation was not a cut-down; that was just what the government tried to make us believe. In reality, the North Sea was divided up between Great Britain, Norway, Denmark, Belgium and everyone got a small part of it. The Dutch fleet was put on a third of its capacity. And later on we found out that Great Britain received five times its capacity. We didn’t know that then, because we Dutch were just a small group. We were traded in. I have spoken to farmers, who at the time owned 200 cows, and had to go back to 70 cows. Meanwhile in Italy with European subsidy small peasants went from three cows to 300 cows. Ten years ago we in the Netherlands were decommissioning our fishing fleet to decrease capacity. While Belgium, right here at the border, gave its fishermen 50 percent subsidy on newly built trawlers. Ten years ago! That whole fleet was innovated with money from Brussels, while we were decommissioning.
We didn’t understand these quotas at all. We just continued to sail out, to fish, to land our catch, and to build new ships as if nothing had changed. We filled out those forms, but we were catching tenfold. The AID (General Inspection Service) existed already, but they mostly watched the size of the net mesh, so the young fish could escape. That was what the AID checked. But slowly the inspection service was increased tenfold, twentyfold. We still had no clue. Till at a certain moment they started maintaining and then it became oppressive. We owned two trawlers, and every year we lost 10 to 20% of our quota. Brussels kept taking and saying the sea was empty, while we kept reeling them in. The AID was simply waiting when you entered the harbor. On Thursday you already started having the collywobbles. You only had quota for 100 caskets of plaice, and those 100 caskets we registered, but we caught about 300 in those days. It wasn’t just 10 kg over. No, there was so much fish. The rest of the fish went into the grey circuit. It wasn’t illegal; we were paying taxes. It was just grey, a grey area.
Then you had been fishing a whole week sick to your stomach because you were catching too much. That fish was all hidden in the holes of the ship, in the net hold, in the shower, in the bathroom. Yes, it is too crazy for words, when I think back at it. How did we keep going? It went like that for years. And then quietly, in the weekend or on Sunday you snug to the ship, to empty it. And just when you were done loading the fish in the truck and you closed the doors, an inspector of the AID would show up to impose a fine and confiscate your fish.
In the beginning the fines were tax-deductible and we collaborated with the AID.
We would ask them: Can’t you give me a fine, so that I am covered?
Well, here you have a casket of sole that I didn’t register.
O, well fine.
That’s how that went down. Then they ruled that the fishing industry was an exception. When another company receives a fine it is still deductible, but when we get a fine, it is not tax-deductible.
People! That codfish cannot read: forbidden for codfish. Even if I fish for plaice, we catch cod with it. A small codfish swims into our nets. We aren’t allowed to catch it, so it goes overboard. Dead. Hundreds of tons keep going overboard every day. Hundreds of tons, it is the truth.
But when we, fishermen, ask for rules, then it isn’t possible. Nothing was done about the horsepower race. For years my father was a board member of the fishery association and he begged already at 800 HP: Government, please set an HP-limit, cause it’s getting out of hand. The government then said: “We live in a democracy. It is not possible. We cannot impose rules just like that.” Then a 1000 HP became possible; there wasn’t a trawler yet that had it. Government, please, we beg you: put a limit at a 1000 HP, cause this is getting out of control. Well it wasn’t possible.
You were forced by your fellow fishermen to join. If you didn’t, you were without crew. The more HP you had – the higher the revenue. We fish according to the shares system. It has been like that for a hundred years. If I fish with you, then I receive seven percent of the revenue of the total catch. When you have a large revenue, I have a lot, do you have no revenue, then I have nothing either.
The people that didn’t join the race, they let their tired head hang. Was a decommissioning program announced, they were the first to sign up. Real family companies went down, because they refused to join the HP race. I can name dozens that just said:“People, we throw in the towel.”
The harbors of Urk have been filled with trawlers of our first generation of 600 HP. They were all decommissioned. The owners received 300.000 guilders compensation from the government. The government then counted like this: those trawlers are worth 400.000, so for 100.000 guilders they can go to Great Britain. So Brussels’s plan worked out. They were sold for a song to Great Britain. Those trawlers kept catching in the same waters, that were supposedly empty, but now under a British number.
LS: Has in your opinion the reputation of the fisherman changed as a result of these developments?
K: Just five weeks ago I had a conversation with someone from the east part of the country. I keep fancy pigeons, and he was selling a few that I wanted. Then that man, a farmer, says:
“My wife really hates you.”
I say: “O, what have I done to your wife? I haven’t even met your wife.”
Then I asked: “Is your wife home?”
He says: “Yeah.”
“May I talk to her?”
So he yells: “There is a fisherman here who wants to talk to you.”
“Hello Mrs., may I ask you a question? I heard that you hate me?”
“Yes,” she says, “I hate those fishermen.”
“Why?” I ask.
“Cause they empty the seas.”
“Yes,” I say, “if that were the case I would hate myself too, if I emptied the seas. But who would have the most interest in a sea filled with fish? You or me?”
“I guess, you.”
“I think so too. If we would have thought at any moment that we were emptying the sea of fish, we would have been really dumb. My grandfather fished; my father fished, and I fished, and I would have liked it if my son had carried on. The only business that has an interest in a great deal of fish in the sea is the fisherman … and no one else. You aren't bothered by no fish in the sea. You’ll just eat chicken.”
Environmental groups show a large Russian factory ship taking tons of fish from the sea. A green mucky foul-colored drainpipe comes from the ship. If I wouldn’t have any interest in fishing, I would also think: stop those guys!
LS: What are the strategies fishermen have used to keep afloat in this period, apart from hiding the fish?
K: We were so pursued by the AID that we were permanently docked. But then we figured it out: we could buy an old British ship, and then we would obtain British quota with it. In the Netherlands we were dreaming about having more quota. So then we became British, at least partly, we had a Dutch trawler and a British trawler. We had already bought the ship and then we found out that it wasn’t possible. Britain had changed its law and a Dutch fishing firm wasn’t allowed to fish with a British ship. We could start an oil-company, but not a fishing company. Yeah, you go through a lot. And they defended all that. We summoned Britain in Brussels. That took about six years and Great Britain lost of course. Either you are EEC or you are not. Well, that is what we also said. Then they invented ‘the economic link’. Eight times a year we had to dock our ship in Great Britain for eight hours. For no reason but ‘the economic link’. They expected you to do repairs there and market your fish. Nobody did that, cause the trade was right here. Even the British, the real British, they unloaded their catch here, too. Being forced to do nothing cost a lot of money. And we were obligated to hire a British captain. We had no need for an extra captain; we needed people who knew how to use their hands. These British captains knew we needed them. So they would first take a cab from Scotland to London, and then a plane to Schiphol and then a cab to Lauwersoog. We were already in for a couple of thousand guilders by then. And then the captain would stand there and say:
“I am the captain”.
Good, then now put on your oil-slickers and begin work, because you are only a formality.
“But me is the captain!”
When Great Britain woke up, 50% of its fleet turned out to be in Spanish hands. The Pelagic fishery, the Atlantic fishery I should say, had been bought up by Spain. Spain had the entire quota. And the Dutch owned the other 50%, the flatfish quota. The Brits raised quite a row, saying: “Those fishing folk over there in the Netherlands are fishing from our quotas.” Then our minister spoke a wise word. “Yes, but how did they obtain those quotas? They didn’t just get them, did they?”
“No, they bought them.”
“Oh, so you sold your quotas.”
We went to buy up Belgian ships, Danish ships, German ships. The only rule in Germany was that you had to have a German captain. A German law of, I don’t remember the exact year, otherwise I’d be minister by now if I’d know all those things, but that law of 1898 or something said that a German ship was a German piece of land under German flag. On German territory one needs a German national, who can maintain the law. A German captain, had to be able to marry, bury the dead, and take a prisoner. Just like our fleet in the past under Piet Hein. In the 17th century the captain was a government official. So we needed a German captain on board based on that law from 1898. Well we challenged that for years in Brussels, and indeed after about ten years the judge ruled that it was madness. Then we could finally be in charge of our own ship.
LS: Do you still own a British or German trawler?
K: I don’t own a large beam trawler anymore. I had to give them all up. I now only own a small ship and fish for shrimp. We Urkish were never in the shrimp fishery, we were always in sole and plaice and cod. My dad said: “A shrimp is not a fish. It's an animal in a shell.” So that was just too much hard work. Then luckily, through time, it all became automated, so we in fact do not get dirty hands anymore. We do not even touch them so to speak. About ten years ago, it started that young men in Urk couldn’t afford the expensive sole-plaice ships anymore. When they started for themselves, they bought a small shrimper.
To me as a fisherman, shrimp fishery is a fairly decent life. We tow the net for two hours. That is one hour of work and then one hour of sleep and that for 24 hours a day. Then we have a good living. Cause I mean, with the beam trawler we had weeks with six men on board, we would tow for one hour. During the towing we would gut the fish and we had just finished when the next catch came up. You often didn’t take your clothes off at all; I am speaking about a distant past, when everything was still allowed.
LS: To whom do you sell shrimp? Is shrimp auctioned like flatfish?
K: There are three categories in shrimp fishing. There are the free fishermen; they are with the fish auction. They just wait till bidding starts. Fishermen used to be obliged to auction their catch. Nowadays Europe no longer has this obligation. You don’t have to auction anything if you don’t want to. Then you have the contract fishermen. Fishing on contract actually developed when the price for shrimp collapsed. Those fishermen did protest. They said: we want a fixed price, a minimum price for our shrimp. And that is how fishing on contract started. And then there are those people, well, that is what I am part of; we are with a sort of trader that functions as a middleman. He goes between the large fish-buyers and us.
LS: If the price for shrimp declined, why are they still so expensive in the store?
I was born in 1956 and back then one didn’t get wealthy from fishing. In any case, my mother had to make do. We were seven children and around Sinterklaas (a Dutch national festival, during which children get gifts) we had to peel shrimp with the family. That was work done at home. Local shrimp traders bought them in Harlingen or in Den Oever. The shrimp would arrive here in trucks. And we as children were standing there waiting with small buckets and then we would peel because Sinterklaas was coming. The government put a stop to that. Peeling shrimp at home is no longer possible. There were some problems with hygiene. Everyone could have expected as much because our Turkish and our Moroccan neighbors discovered peeling as work at home. Then the shrimp also went to the big city. As long as you keep shrimp wet, they stay alive infinitely. It is like weed. You can’t exterminate it and it is always there. But a shrimp is also a vulnerable little animal. When it dies, it spoils quickly. So at some point shrimp peeling at home was banned.
Then the fish-buyers made an effort and invested a lot of money to set up ateliers in the Netherlands. A small factory was built, and you could go there with a white coat, a hat and wooden shoes, and then you could peel there. Peeling centers. That wasn’t allowed either. What did the fish traders do? They went abroad. So what happens now? We catch them. We bring them on land. Then they go into a truck. A driver sits down and drives three days south over to Morocco. That’s where they built the peeling centers. They are owned by Dutch fish-buyers, not by Moroccans. And that is why it is so difficult for a third party to break in. Because when I say: “I am going into the shrimp trade,” then I have to build one of those peeling centers, or I have to go to an existing trader and ask: “Do you want to peel them for me over there in Morocco?” So basically it is locked down completely.
Kobus’ wife enters with coffee and cake.
So since the ban on peeling them by hand they’re sent to Morocco. They work fairly cheap over there. But still they have to be transported to Morocco in coolers, and then back again to the Netherlands. And that costs a few pennies. That makes shrimp extra costly for the consumer. The price is now one fifty. So now for example you have to catch five tons to get reasonable revenue. But we would be happy with two tons for three and a half euro. A few thousand for oil has to be subtracted. But what remains is a good living. You can pay your employees from that and your bills. But say the price is one fifty. Then half remains after peeling. So let’s say one and a half – that becomes three euro. So peeled they are three euros per kilo. The peeling costs money too, so let’s say four euros per kilo. I would then prefer that shrimp is in the store for five euros, because then you would buy it too. I mean: I would buy it! And now it is a luxury article. You only eat shrimp when you think: let’s be lavish.
LS: How much do you earn as a shrimp fisher? Did fishing for shrimp become more profitable when shrimp got more expensive?
On the contrary. Prices have plummeted. Shrimp don’t bring in a dime anymore. There is an oversupply. Then there are protest meetings in which shrimp fishermen shout those buyers do this and that. And the fish buyers, they blame the supermarkets. They say: We are played off against one another. Those are affairs that go on outside of us. There may be a core of truth in there. It is after all a business world that we as fishermen aren’t cut out for. The other day there was one of these meetings and one of the shrimp traders said: “We are not a life-insurance company, who has to guarantee the entire supply of the fleet. Why would we buy them at 3 euro when we can get them for 1,50?” I have always said: when you are jealous of a fish-buyer then you should become one. I chose to be a fisherman and I’m okay with them buying a new Mercedes every week, as long as I can drive my Toyota. So I am fine with it all, you understand? And then I did say that too: “People, now don’t get angry with me, I’m new at this, but is it not normal that when someone needs 100 ton, you supply him with 90 ton? Then they all just look at you: We will just catch some more when the price drops. It is a particular crowd. ... What if: We catch less. Tighten the belt, a few weeks just till the buyer’s cold store is empty. In business, from the day the world began to turn, when someone needs 100 tons of something then you must make sure to supply 90 tons and not 110. That is just a law of the Medes and Persians. Not to go too far, because it doesn’t help us when the fish-buyers go bankrupt. But well, it is not allowed. We are not allowed to make agreements like that.
LS: Why is that not allowed?
K: In the past, I was still in that larger segment, the shrimp fishers decided together to fish a little shorter. Suddenly the Dutch Competition Authority (NMA) appeared, nobody knew it existed, and they said it was cartel formation. The fish-buyers and product-organizations that those small fishermen were connected to, they really got into trouble. Because the authorities just said: this is price gauging, this is cartel formation. Does the NMA have nothing else to do but chase the shrimp scene?
LS: How does this effect the motivation of the crew when prices plummet and prospects are insecure?
K: Outside the fishing industry it is very normal to work with Poles and Russians. But we prefer skilled men on board. You cannot become a fisherman one day to the next. But there was no crew available anymore in the Netherlands so we had to look abroad. Then I went to Poland, or I mean to one of these temporary employment agencies, that provides Polish workers. The Pole who is on board with me, his grandfather was a fisherman, and his father was a fisherman. And he is a fisherman. Only, over there it is also nothing anymore, so they come over here.
The Poles came to the Netherlands with such agencies. The skipper paid 700 euros per week. They received 350 euros and the remaining 350 euros, were used by the agencies for themselves, and for the insurance. It was all well insured. When the Poles figured that out, that they only received half of what they cost, they rapidly took over our system. They told that agency goodbye. To the skipper they said: “just give us a percentage, then we are better off.” Yes, but as a consequence, when things go down like now, they are not prepared for that. Cause when you do something; you do that because it is better than the existing arrangement. My Pole has sent me a text message last Sunday that he quits. “I am on my way to Poland. I quit.” So now I lost him now too. That’s why I am at home. The ship is docked, cause I cannot go out.
The other day we berthed at Lauwersoog, in the middle of the night. We were just able to unload. Two men came, a customs guy and a military policeman.
Can we board for a sec?
Come aboard. What’s the trouble?
O, just checking, huh, if you are smuggling liquor.
We don’t have any. We drank it all.
I am still standing at the shipping hatch, cause we were unloading those shrimp. At some point that MP, a young lad, 5- maybe 26-years old, asks:
Who are you?
I am Kobus Post.
You could say so. Fifteen, five, fifty-six.
Right then, so you are a Dutchman?
Yes, I am a Dutchman.
And that gentleman, who is he?
So that was my Polish crewmember.
I say: That is my Polish employee.
Then that pickle says: Gotcha! And laughs.
I say: what are you actually laughing about?
Say, what are you laughing about, in the middle of the night, two in the morning. I have no reason to laugh; I would rather lie in bed. What are you laughing about?
That boy was completely legal. I had even applied for his discharge book, a seaman’s book.
But that Aah sssh, I’ve been hearing that my whole life. Gotcha. We got him, the criminal.
O well, I am a bit long-winded, you have probably noticed. But it is pure emotion. Just take into account that we fishermen have basically been mangled as a trade. The Hague has always thought that as a fisherman you are an entrepreneur with a big calculator in front of you: this many kilos of fish, this much and this much … and that makes … and then it yields so much money, and that is simply not the case. A farmer isn’t either. A farmer wants to get up at four in the morning and crawl under a cow and milk a cow. Simply because he is a farmer. And he wants to dig in the earth. And for that they have no feeling or understanding in The Hague, because they are used to not having their own company. When a company doesn’t run: there’s no income.
Last year we were out fishing, above Schiermonnikoog, for shrimp. A three-master sails towards us.
(Coughs and then with a high-pitched voice)
“UK 53 can you hear me?”
On the VHF radio, a woman’s voice.
Woman: “I have a question to you, sir.”
(High squeaky voice) coughs. I am just going to speak normal again.
“I see it says UK 53 on your ship. Is that a traditional number, one that goes from father to son, or is that just a random number?“
I say: “No, that is, for me at least and for many people, the number is a legacy. My grandfather started using it in a faraway past, far before the war, he put UK 53 up front at the bow and my father then took that over, and I in turn took it over, and I would have liked to see my son take over UK 53 even in a smaller version.”
She says: “That’s because, I bought a botter and it says UK 53.“ (a botter is an old type of Dutch boat made of wood)
So I am little surprised. That is my grandfather’s botter. It was built in 1932. “So you have bought my grandfather’s botter.”
She says: “She lies in Enkhuizen, she has been fully restored. I am fully restoring her to her original state.”
I own a small boat, a small Cruiser, and last year I went with my wife for a week to Enkhuizen, in the summer. And really, there I was suddenly in front of my grandfather’s botter.
My grandfather fished his whole life, my father fished, I fished, and my son quit at the age of 31. My business stops. The lineage has been broken. I cannot blame him for it. There are various uncertainties. The fish buyers have depreciated the plaice. They had no idea where that was going with these governments. So they have gone to a more secure supply, they discovered tilapia. And actually I don’t blame them; they also have to keep their business going. Only, it is very sad for us.
I now have to work with a Polish employee to make ends meet. In fishing you have the system of asking your crew each year. You don’t have any permanent crewmen. You ask your crew again when “er” is in the month: September, October, November, they contain an r. Then the wind starts kicking up, too. Then you ask your crew for the coming year, and if you want to get rid of one of them, because he doesn’t fit or is lazy, then you tell that fellow: “Sorry, but you have to find another ship, because I have no interest anymore.” And when your crewmember wants to leave, then he would also say so in that month. When you asked: “Are you with us next year?” Then it was: “No, I am joining another skipper.” Now they just leave. They send you a text message Sunday evening: I am not coming anymore.