Market Fundamentalism vs. Community Rights on the Danish Coastline

Mathilde Hojrup Autzen

“We were told to bring along our slippers to the meeting at the life-saving station in Thorupstrand, where the floors are rather cold in December. The lifeboat operator, Per, didn’t want to let anyone scuff up the sacred office at the local lifeboat station with their shoes …….. We were meeting with a small group of young fishermen who had invited a lawyer, a consultant from the farmers’ cooperative society and a consultant from the fishermen’s association in Denmark, in an attempt to find a legal way to implement their plan to save their fishing community on the coast of Skagerrak in Northern Jutland. They had to act very quickly before the consequences of a new law would cause the community to die out.  Just one month later, their efforts would succeed. “We’re making history”, a young fisherman proclaimed as twenty families in the fishing community had joined together to make a strong new cooperative to face the new threat of the enclosure of the maritime commons” (Jesper Andresen and Thomas Højrup 2008. The Tragedy of Enclosure: The Battle for Maritime Resources and Life-Modes in Europe. Ethnologia Europaea Vol. 38/1 pp. 29-41. 2008. ISBN 978-87-635-1105-6).

Surviving A Market Onslaught

In the early 2000s, the then-Danish government decided to introduce a new market-based management system for the country’s fisheries. Based on the concept of Individual Transferable Quota, it was a severe and far-reaching break with Danish fishing management traditions based on regulated equal and open access. In the new system the market replaced the state as the distributor of Danish fishing rights and the fishing quotas were tied to the existing fishing vessels, enabling boat owners to sell their allocated quotas for high market prices. As a result, investors, who had the eager backing of capital, started monopolizing fishing rights. The new system undermined the share-organized principles on which this type of fishing had been based and posed a serious challenge to the small-scale fishing communities in Denmark. New generations of fishers now had to buy into an expensive quota market or become borrowers of fishing rights from fishers who owned quotas. In another blow to the livelihood of the local people, fishers without boat ownership were not recognized when fishing quotas were allocated.

Strategically located on the northern tip of Denmark, Thorupstrand has reliable access to ample fish stock, which have always supported local livelihoods dependent on small-scale fishing.

In Thorupstrand, a small landing place based on the north-faced coast of the bay of Jammerbugt in the Strait of Skagerrak, small-scale, “coastal” fishing boats are hauled up on the beach after a day’s fishing trip – about 150-200 days a year. There is no harbor, but an active landing place with a lifeboat station manned by locals and a winch, a bulldozer, tractors, modern packing, sorting and icing facilities – all commonly driven and owned by the fishers through their local fishing organization. Thorupstrand used to be just one of the many such small fishing communities along the west and north coasts of Jutland, but today it is one of the very few where full-time fishers engage in “low-impact”, small-scale fishing from the beach.

Exploring Alternatives – Organizing A Guild

Under the new management system, only about 1/3 of the Thorupstrand fishers, the boat owners, were allocated the valuable fishing quotas which created a vulnerable and uneven situation for the share-organised fishers, many of whom were the young generation who had not yet taken over from their fathers. Realizing that buying quota individually would be too big a financial burden, the fishers fervently looked for an alternative and decided to try and find a model that could secure present and future common fishing rights for their local community. The result was the formation of the “Thorupstrand Guild of Coastal Fishers”, conceived and designed as a “cooperative”. Their first act was to persuade local banks to lend them money to buy up fishing quotas for their guild. These common quotas are shared by the fishers and distributed yearly through a flexible distribution system. Anyone who is a registered fisher can become a member of the guild, as long as s/he signs the guild’s code of conduct for responsible and low-impact fishing, and promises to be based in Thorupstrand.

To become a member of the guild, one has to pay a deposit of about $15220 US (100000 DKK) that is refunded when one leaves the guild, but the values of the guild, the fishing quotas, stay in the guild for future fishers and can never be made object of speculation. In the guild, everyone has an equal right to their shared quotas – meaning that share-organized fishers without boat ownership are equal and valuable partners for boat owners. In order to repay their bank loans, the fishers in the guild pay a rent for the common quotas they use, and as such their loans are lowered until that day in the future where the guild is debt-free.

A Thorupstrand fisherman returning after a fishing trip. Pic. Pipsen Monrad Hansen

Most of the founders of the guild are now retired, and their memberships have been taken over by younger fishers. The guild has thus been able to achieve one of its primary aims, to provide access to fishing rights for the young generation. However, since the foundation of the guild in 2007, this model itself and the fishing community have faced several challenges. Right in the beginning, the financial crisis hit them hard. Their most important bank went bankrupt and the fish prices dropped to a level that made the fishers unable to meet the loan rates and pay down their bank loans for several years. Currently, the fishing community is challenged by low levels of catches of their most important target species. They face hard competition from foreign beam-trawlers that take over their fishing grounds and, according to the small-scale fishers in Thorupstrand, destroy the sea floor, putting the future resource base in danger.

Building A Sustainable Future

Since 2007 the fishers of the guild have taken several measures in order to address these challenges. Among other things they have upgraded their common facilities in order to secure the best quality fish for the auction. The guild has opened its own local fish shop, and also initiated a partnership with a Danish retail chain. A recent interesting step was the opening of a floating fish shop in Copenhagen. The guild has also started a collaboration with marine biologists to continue to be technically and scientifically sound in their work. At the moment the guild is trying its hardest to protect the local fishing grounds from heavy beam-trawling and make sure that the local ecosystems will remain sustainable for future generations of local small-scale fishers.

A floating fish shop in Copenhagen run by the Thorupstrand guild. Pic. Pipsen Monrad Hansen

Thorupstrand Guild of Coastal Fishers Code of Conduct

This code of conduct was adopted by the Thorupstrand guild in 2007. It’s a unique declaration of the progressive and sustainable ecological intent of the fishers of this region of Denmark, and lends an insight into the knowledge of a community, which is intensely conscious of its relationship with nature. 

  1. Low energy consumption
  2. Consideration of the seabed, fauna and fish throughout the local ecosystem
  3. Minimal discard during daily catching of e-fish (extra-ordinary quality).
  4. Maximum utilization of fish in the sea by targeting fish of the highest quality
  5. Discouragement of speculation in natural resources and overfishing
  6. Preservation of the vibrant coastal culture and heritage of the local community.

Our catching area is the North Sea, more specifically the southern part of the Skagerrak and the northernmost part of the North Sea. We fish from the longshore bars along the shore to the rich slopes along the 800 metres deep Norwegian Deep. The Slope has a constant inflow and outflow of fresh, cold sea water from the North Atlantic, while the water above the stony bottoms and sand surfaces is thick or clear depending on the wind or current. Our fishery is adapted to the natural behaviour and habitat of the fish, which change according to water temperature, current direction, waves, food and seasons. We only fish when the weather allows us to ensure that we can cross the breakers. When it is windy, the fish do not have to worry about us. In our waters, the fish stocks are well off because they can migrate from the deep water into the shallow water whenever they want to, reflecting the weather as well as the fish life and seasonal cycles. For generations, we have named our reefs, rock edges, limestone peaks, soft holes, shoals, slopes and deep, and we care for them like the flowerbeds in our yard, because they are the breeding grounds and shelter of the life in our sea that we catch for a living. We want to avoid this wealth turning into a barren desert by heavy, dragging tools pulled by super trawlers with the engine power to tear the vital reefs to pieces and destroy the fish shelters.

1. We will reduce our CO2 emission to the minimum by keeping energy consumption at a low level. We can do this because:
A. Our fishing community is close to the fishing grounds at sea – moreover, there is no port and other fishing boats must sail a long way to get here. For this reason, our fuel consumption to and from fishing ground is minimal.

B. Our fishing methods include Danish seine and gillnet fishing, which require very little energy consumption for the actual fishing.

2. Consideration of the overall ecosystem is of utmost importance while using the fishing methods:
A. Danish seine fishing from light-weigh vessels less than 15 metres long and large-mesh net fishing are gentle towards the sea bed and fauna.

B. Danish seine fishing from coasting vessels is a selective precision tool that places tools exactly where the fish – mainly plaice – that you want to catch, are. Gill net fishing can be done with a mesh size that ensures that only the fish that are worth the most and are the right size are caught. Net should not stay in the sea any longer than necessary.

3. We seek to minimize the extent and harm of discard:
A. Unlike trawling, which has become increasingly aggressive and involves ever larger vessels, the selectivity of gillnet fishing is based on the notion that all fish must be taken out manually, whereas a trawl bag is emptied using a lever. Consequently, the maximum motivation of gillnet fishing is to not catch any other fish than what is to be used and landed.
B. Using small Danish seines, the catch can be taken on board regularly, so that the fish to be put back are put back immediately without being squeezed or hurt.

4. The guild will continue its endeavor to achieve high-value fishing which lands E-fish on the same day as they are caught. In this way, the fishermen derive the highest possible value of the fish in the sea. This optimization of resources is possible because the fishery is knowledge-intensive, high-tech and based on craftsmanship. It also cares about animal ethics and green and quality-conducive technological innovation. The guild will work to ensure that the urban population can enjoy salt-water fish that are landed the same day that they are caught and therefore of extra high quality.

5. By buying vessel quotas and keeping them common property, the guild gathers permanent fishing rights that can no longer be subject to speculation in the increase in value of the quotas. The intention is to relieve this part of the national fishing rights from the economic pressure for high grading and overexploitation of quotas, increased discard etc. By adopting gentle inshore fishery, the guild counteracts the increasing speculation in natural sea resources by making these the common property of the living, local community in a coastal fishing village on the north beach of Jutland. Its future depends on the ability to preserve the excellent living conditions of the wild fish in the natural ecosystem of Skagerrak.

6. Thorupstrand Guild of Coastal Fisheries consists of more than 20 families who have established a co-operative society in order to future-proof environmentally friendly share fishery from small coastal vessels at an open beach. From this beach, our forefathers have gone out fishing and our mothers have cleaned fish and mended tools for more than a thousand years. In contrast to the current concentration of Danish fishery on large steel trawlers owned by limited companies, we inshore fishermen aim to preserve and develop the benefits of a modern, independent coastal fleet of small, but highly developed sea boats. The share organization of the guild is rooted in the experiences of our own heritage. The activities of the guild will benefit the ecosystem, the cultural environments, the local community and the heritage that it represents, sheltered by the sand bars on the northwest coast of Jutland.

Thorupstrand coast at night. Pic. Pipsen Monrad Hansen

Mathilde Højrup Autzen is a social anthropologist working with eco-labelling and small scale fishing in Denmark. She grew up (partly) in Thorupstrand and is still engaged in the fishing community.

For more detailed descriptions of Danish fishing regulation and the Thorupstrand Guild of Coastal Fishers see:

The Tragedy of Enclosure. The Battle for Maritime Resources and Life-Modes in Europe. https://www.mtp.dk/details.asp?eln=500233

The Need for Common Goods for Coastal Communities http://www.havbaade.dk/thenecessity.pdf

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