Dutch Herring, An Environmental History, Bo Poulsen, (Amsterdam: Aksant Publishing, 2008).
This is a totally cool book, one of the most interesting books I’ve ever read about fishing. I always assumed that the Dutch herring fishery, the largest and most sophisticated fishery in the world between 1600 and 1860, ended because of overfishing, and according to Poulsen, that’s wrong. It’s much too simple an explanation.
Between 1550 and 1650, the Dutch Republic was the most modern economy and leading trading nation in Europe and the herring fishery played a vital role in this success. In the 1560s, a number of towns formed a political body, the College van de Grote Visserij, which was granted jurisdiction over the entire herring industry, from catching to processing, marketing, and distribution of salted herring. The College regulated the size and use of fishing gear and the length of the seasons, with the goal of upholding the quality of the best brand of salted herring in Europe.
Poulsen, who earned his doctorate at the University of Southern Denmark in 2006, learned Dutch so he could navigate the College’s vast historical archive for his historical reconstruction. Tax records from southern Netherlands towns provided precise landing records. Norwegian export statistics allowed for the reconstruction of salted herring production in Norway between 1650 and 1850. Export figures and accounts of fishing initiatives provided an overview of the Scottish herring fishery. English, German, and Danish statistics were also investigated. Did the catches impact the North Sea herring biomass? Poulsen argues they did not, and that even the high catches in the 1790s were well within the harvest limits established for the stock by ICES scientists today.
The enormous amounts of data allowed Poulsen to reconstruct the catch per unit effort (CPUE) of the Dutch herring fishery between 1600 and 1850, the longest time series of CPUE ever constructed. He’s also been able to document the trade routes for salted herring, patterns of consumption, and prices. While Dutch herring originally dominated the market, over the decades Scottish, Danish, and Norwegian herring were important suppliers.
I was most interested in the management aspects of the fishery. The College managed the fishery for almost 300 years, before it was dissolved in 1857. The College’s own records, along with the logbooks of fishermen and registers of landings, show that fishermen cooperated extensively and communicated with each other, in order to minimize the time spent seeking the fish. Communication was a vital way of reducing costs. The Dutch had relatively free markets and a high level of social concern, with laws that upheld the negotiations of contracts and the material well being of citizens. Poulsen found extensive information on the types of boats and fishing gear, and it is important to note that the technology was relatively stable, with few innovations that would drive the over-capitalization of modern fishing boats. Most importantly, the College limited the number of licenses, ensuring their monopoly, but also creating a framework where fishermen could trust each other’s information.
So why did the fishery fail? There are five main hypotheses. The North Sea was a frequent theatre of war during the Early Modern period, and piracy was a constant tension. Technology could also have been a factor. While the Dutch excelled in creating an effective institutional framework in the sixteenth century, the College failed to keep pace with innovations elsewhere. Competition from Scotland was also a factor. While Dutch herring was a premium product, it was relatively high priced. Changes in diet at home may have also weakened the market. The European population was growing and per capital consumption of herring declined. The catch rates also declined, suggesting a change in the herring migration, or, as Poulsen puts it, a loss of relative spatial advantage. The Dutch boats had to travel far from home to make their catches; the boats from the Scottish mainland had an advantage because the fish were close to shore in the Shetlands. There were other shifts in relative spatial advantage over time.
As Poulsen points out, “The historical system of herring exploitation consists of interactions between a very dynamic natural system and a highly dynamic anthropogenic system,” (234). The stock fluctuated and migrated. Policies shifted, tastes changed, fishing expanded elsewhere, the glory days of the Dutch fishery waned.
But the Dutch fishery was sustainable for almost three hundred years, a remarkable achievement. Poulsen confines himself to his data and does not expand on why the fishery was sustainable, beyond saying, “Quite unlike modern fisheries management, collaboration in the early modern Dutch herring fishery abided virtually the same fishery laws for three centuries,” (21). But there is another important component here, fishermen undoubtedly tried to catch as much fish as they could, but the fishery remained undercapitalized, at least in the terms of modern fisheries economics. More boats could have entered the fishery at various points, and they might have been as successful as the rest of the fleet.
The fishery was successful because the College tightly regulated it. Or, as British scientist Michael Graham put it in his 1943 classic The Fish Gate, “Fisheries that are unregulated become unprofitable.” As modern American fisheries management has come to be practiced, there are no restrictions on entry as fisheries develop. It is only once MSY is exceeded, then established, that managers implement gear and time restrictions, as they allocate the catch among competing users groups.
Dutch Herring is a truly remarkable work, an integration of science and policy into fisheries. I wanted a little more information about the role of the fishery in creating the wealth of the Dutch Golden Age. While Poulsen harnesses a raft of data about the fish, there is not much about the individual fishermen. The fishery may have been successful, but according to other sources, fishermen themselves didn’t make much money. Fishing has always been a difficult and dangerous occupation, regardless of how successful the crews were at catching fish.
While Poulsen integrates his analysis into science, he is less anchored in history. There were other stable trading groups during the early modern period (see Before European Hegemony: The World System A.C. 1250-1350, by Janet Abu-Ludhod), although I am sure that none were as centered on one commodity as salted herring. And it would be interesting to compare the actions of the College with Japanese communal fishery regulation during the same period. Both the Dutch and the Japanese conducted their fisheries to achieve certain social goals, and the well-being of not just fishermen, but also communities.
Poulsen’s work has been partially funded by the History of Marine Animal Populations, and he illustrates a central concern of HMAP members, that fishery collapse involves more factors than just fishing. In some ways, I increasingly think that just catching the fish is least important part of our interactions with fish. The profit is in the processing, marketing, and distribution, as the College knew for almost three hundred years.
 Michael Graham, The Fish Gate, (London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1943), 155.