Herring, cod and other fish


Industrialising the sea

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Jens Væver didn't know that he was about to revolutionise the Danish fishing industry when his idea came to him one day in 1848. Like many others living in the town of Salling, near the Liim Fjord, Væver was a smallholder who supplemented his income by fishing. Normally, he and others locals stood on the shore and fished eel and flatfish using a net known as a seine. But Væver got the idea to head out in a boat and to try fishing with a seine far from shore. When the net was dropped into the water, the fisherman could drop anchor. Then, he could pull the net back in to the boat. The new method came to be known as Danish seine or anchor seine. For fishermen, the technique meant that they were soon hauling in enormous quantities of fish from the Liim Fjord. So enormous, in fact, that those using it were accused of overfishing. Some even went as far as to demand a ban on it in order to protect fish stocks.

The blue fleet of the North Sea
After 1880, Danish fishermen from West Jutland were shipping their catches by rail to cities throughout Europe. During the period, use of the Danish seine spread from Skagen at the northern tip of Denmark to the newly built port in Esbjerg on the south-west Jutland coast. After 1900, fishermen from across the country flocked to Esbjerg to begin fishing after plaice. Together with new motorised fishing boats, the Danish seine was responsible for an increase in the number of fishermen. Between 1920 and 1950, the blue ships of the Danish fishing fleet dominated deep-sea fishing in the North Sea. The Danish seine is the country's most important contribution to the development of fishing worldwide.

Wild about herring
Danish fishermen have always had to support themselves with other sources of income. Even Danish seine inventor Jens Væver tended the crops of his farm. The number of people employed in the fishing industry probably reached its high point in 1900, after the Danish seine's breakthrough. At that time about four percent of Danes were employed by the industry in some way. Fishing, however, was also popular in the Middle Ages. Between 1100 and 1500, the arrival of schools of herring threw people into a tizzy. Farmhands abandoned their chores and cobblers stopped working mid-sole. Everyone wanted to take to the seas to get their hands on one of the sea's richest resources. On numerous occasions, people were banned from abandoning their regular jobs to fish after herring. Herring was in high demand. It was salted and then exported. But after the Reformation in Northern and Central Europe did away with Catholic days of fasting that required people to eat fish instead of meat, herring's status declined from being an export item to a common, inexpensive food item for the masses.

Fish on a wire
Even after the Danish seine was introduced, line fishing remained a common method of catching fish. In longline fishing, a number of hooks on short lines are attached to a main line. The method was still being used into the first few decades of the 20th century to catch cod and haddock off the west coast of Jutland. Fishermen from Bornholm used hooks on lines anchored in one place to catch salmon. Fishing with a longline was time consuming, however. On the west coast, fishermen relied on women back on land to bait hundreds of hooks each day during the fishing season. The importance of fishing and the amount of labour it required meant that farmhands and maids lived on farms in the summer, and at fishing huts in the winter.

Eely big catch

Deep-sea fishing was the most important contributor to the fishing industry during the 20th century. Still, there were many who fished eel with pound nets in coastal waters and fjords. Since Medieval times, coastal eel fishing with woven traps each autumn had been an important source of income for households. People who owned coastal land had the right to trap eel from their own property, but they could also rent stretches of coast to landless peasants. German fishermen from Pomerania introduced eel fishing in open waters around 1870. Using drift nets, they fished from boats called kvase, taken from the word to crush" because their catches were crushed in the hold of the ship. But eel stocks disappeared around 1920 when the eelgrass that served as their habitats was killed off by an illness. The kvase disappeared, leaving traps and pound nets behind as the primary methods of eel fishing. Fishermen crowded coastal headlands and points when schools of silver eel passed as they made their way back to the Sargasso Sea to spawn.

Overfishing threatens whales
Once upon a time, Danish sailors sailed far from home in search of the sea's largest creatures. Fishermen from Rømø and other islands in the Wadden Sea had a reputation as specialists when it came to hunting whales and seals in the North Atlantic. Each year, they worked aboard ships sailing out of Hamburg and the Netherlands. Often, they served as captains – known as "commanders" on whaling ships. Between 1600 and 1800, the whaling fleet brought home an annual average of 1,000 whales, and thousands of seals and walruses. As a consequence, the giant, slow moving right whales were almost hunted to extinction.

Industrialised seas
New developments in the fishing industry have all but wiped out another of the denizens of the seas: Denmark's light blue fishing ships. Until the 1970s, fishermen sailed the North Sea in their blue wooden boats in order to fill their seines with fish. But many began to use funnel-shaped trawl nets that could catch even more fish than Væver's 1848 invention. Some were fishing after species used in animal food, fishmeal and fish oil. The practice came to be known as industrial fishing, and there was good money in it. The wooden fishing boats were replaced with bigger, steel cutters. And as fishing techniques became more effective, catch limits and quotas were implemented. Pollution threatened fish stocks. Fewer ships were chasing after fewer fish. Hundreds of the light blue fishing ships were sent to the scrap heap. Over a period of 40 years, the number of fishermen fell 80 percent. Today, less than one percent of Danes are employed full or part-time in fishing. The big, efficient trawlers have the North Sea and its fish to themselves. The biggest fishing ships in Denmark today are herring trawlers, which have a capacity of 2,000 tons.