Most people want a static environment rather than a dynamic one and favour independence over being dependent, control over surrender, and see themselves as apart from nature instead of as part of it. In order to take care of the future of the communities and nature, another thinking pattern is needed.
Only a few people are capable of salt-thinking and salt-perceiving. That is something fishermen can teach us. Salt living is realizing that things are out of your hands, that you have to deal with nature and society as it unfolds. This contrasts with freshwater (inside the dike) thinking where you assume you can regulate things and can oversee and cope with the consequences of using nature and people. To really understand the effects of human action on nature and society we need salt-thinking because that enables you to recognize the measure of all things and the ratio between scales. Most people are afraid of salt-thinking (Klaas Laansma).
The people involved in SGV think that the ‘salt way of living’ is more relaxed. Surrendering to the rhythm of the sea, to the limits nature sets, is less distressing and makes you worry less rather than more. Being in control takes a lot of energy, far more than taking life as it comes. The same goes for the boundaries nature sets in the species of fish available, or in the amount of mature fish per season; taking that for granted makes life easier, but only if you can subordinate yourself to nature, based on the attitude that you are part of nature. You have to relate to nature, to understand her; you have to know the landscape to recognize its dynamics; you have to connect to the larger system to sense it; acknowledging and surrendering to nature is a precondition for restoring our natural environment, as the following example of the Shrimp fishers will show.
Most shrimp fishermen aren’t part of SGV and use large trailers and trawlers to bring in as many shrimps as they can. During my research the shrimp fishermen are on strike, in protest against low shrimp prices, and four people are spending two days pole-sitting. It is just one of the many forms of action taking place. Everyone is talking about it, so their story slips into my research, setting an example of freshwater thinking in fishery. They have been on strike for weeks now. Because most fishermen are self-employed, at first going on strike seems to me to be a slightly odd thing to do. But it does make sense because none of them are fishing for shrimp at present, in the hope of bringing pressure to bear on the fish dealers. The fishermen are demanding agreements on prices and quantities.
Shrimps are the weeds of the sea. You are allowed to catch as many as you like. And if everyone starts catching more, the prices go down and you have to catch even more. Shrimp numbers are not declining (although the shrimps themselves do get smaller if you keep on fishing for large volumes), so the spiral can go on and on. And that’s just what has happened. It is good for the consumer and the trade because shrimp prices are low and great for maintaining strong competition.
However, it is not so good for nature and society. The damage caused by shrimp fishing lies not only in the quantities caught but also in the damage done by the nets to the sea floor. There is also the turmoil that constant fishing brings to the sea and the people involved—people who work 80- to 90-hour weeks or longer.
The Wadden Sea and the fishing community would certainly welcome an alternative because more agreements and more self-regulation are good for the sea and for society. But this is no simple matter, for several reasons. The fishermen are not always so united and the Netherlands Competition Authority (NMA) prohibits price and catch agreements. Free market mechanisms must remain in operation, so there is no place for sector-wide agreements.
On ecological grounds, however, agreements with the entire sector would be a good idea. The shrimp fishermen have been investigating the possibility of Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification for some time now. However, they can only obtain this if everyone works together and is subject to the same agreements. One aspect of MSC certification is agreeing when to fish more or less depending on current fish stocks. One way to do that is to conclude agreements on fishing times, to give the seabed a rest and the shrimp population time to recover by regularly abstaining from fishing.
In practice, the optimum catch quantities in order to obtain a good price and also to fish in an ecologically responsible manner appear to be more or less the same. That’s nice, you might think—problem solved. This is not the case, however. According to the NMA, no agreements can be made on fish that don’t have a quota, that is, fish without a government-imposed catch limit. Self-regulation of the sector is in principle contrary to the free market mechanism: you cannot drive prices up by orchestrating a shortage, even though that may be precisely what nature needs.
So it’s a stalemate: nature calls for collaboration and agreement, the economy for competition. Nature asks for less, the economy for more. Nature and society benefit from collectivity, the economy from individuality.
My dream is that people, all being part of the system, sit together and start thinking about the Wadden Sea. What is needed and what is important? How can we make use of the sea, and where do we cross the line? Put the outcomes down as an inspiration for policy and regulation and legislation (Klaas Laansma, policymaker).
Cooperation is considered crucial; cooperation in the sense of giving, sharing, trust and self-mastery and restraint as opposed to a more hierarchical way of cooperating, based on regulations, permits and top-down management. Cooperation in serving the whole, nature and society, doesn’t exclude people or organizations.
In the course of my research, I came across other examples of this kind of co-operation. It wasn’t immediately obvious but as I learned more there turned out to be a great deal in common with the worldview of SGV. To illustrate, let me tell you about Jan-Michel van der Gang, owner of a menswear shop in Dokkum and co-initiator and organiser of the Oyster Festival.
When I arrive in Dokkum the weather is lovely, there are a couple of attractive streets full of shops and my visit happens to coincide with a fair. Walking into Van der Gang’s shop, I find a number of people gathered around over the next issue of the Dokkum magazine, which is published jointly by local businesses, hotels and restaurants and tourist organizations. They are gathered around a large table in the centre of the store, using the space as a meeting room. At the same time, customers are strolling around trying to find something to their liking. Shortly afterwards, an acquaintance of one of the shop assistants comes in and seats himself at the other end of the table. Someone offers him a cup of coffee and they start chatting about this and that. They use the shop as their living room to catch up on the latest news.
Later, Jan-Michiel tells me that he has introduced many people to each other around that particular table in his shop. And it often happens that all sorts of new activities and businesses spring up as a result of these meetings.
Jan-Michiel is a member of the Dokkum Business Society, which aims to build a structure that can generate initiatives to strengthen Dokkum as a whole. One of its initiatives is the fair in the main street of Dokkum that I mentioned before. For the same reason, he is involved in several government associations and local organizations responsible for organizing a wide variety of activities, including the Oyster Festival. Shops and local groups involved in, for example, catering and education, tourism and healthcare work together to improve the quality of life in Dokkum and the surrounding area.
Many of these initiatives arose at the large table in Jan-Michiel’s shop through people sharing dreams and stories. Some of them get taken up, others don’t. Sometimes the spark is there right away, and sometimes not until years later. You need to have patience, to wait until the time is right. The time needs to be right and, in practice, that means waiting until ‘things come together’ as Jan-Michiel puts it. And by ‘things’ he means, for example, interests, policies and readiness to invest. You need powers of endurance and the ability to see a speck on the horizon. Now and then you need the nerve to let long-term goals take precedence over short-term profit.
And you need to be able to combine things, as with the Oyster Festival, which combines the traditional (the craft of the fisherman), the environment (sea and town) and the contemporary (trendy dishes). This way of starting initiatives aligns with ‘salt living’ and changed Jan-Michiel’s perspective on entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs do business as part of a greater whole. As an entrepreneur, you have a role in society and you interpret it in your own way, in partnership with others. It is something you work on consciously. You try to do the right thing for the community and for your own business, because you believe that those things go hand in hand. ‘That’s certainly not easy, but it’s the only way to take your place in the greater scheme of things as an entrepreneur,’ says Jan-Michiel.
His cooperation with SGV also sprouted from that table, resulting in the fishermen’s participation in the various fairs and local activities—telling fishermen’s stories, teaching people how to clean fish, and serving delicious seafood together with local chefs and restaurants.
Jan-Michiel’s story is typical of the SGV community. People, entrepreneurs, not-for-profit organizations and local government all working together to preserve the Wadden Sea, to support regional development in an area that can be characterized as greyed and deflating.
What stands out in many of the stories I heard and the activities I saw is the inclusiveness that is exercised. SGV is a combined entrepreneurial and conservational fishermen’s initiative. To reach their goals the obvious route to take would be to cooperate with the government to get the necessary permits, to work with conservationists to agree on ways of fishing and with chain partners to ensure marketing and sales. The usual way of working would have been to draw up a plan, find the necessary partners, obtaining their commitment and executing the plan as agreed.
SGV chooses a different route, the ‘salt route’: starting an experiment, sharing dreams and stories with anyone who crosses their path, seeing where things come together, where the spark ignites, going where the energy takes you, and making use of the variety in nature, in ideas, capacities, organizations, people and goals.
Perceiving their environment as they do the sea, as an environment you have to work with as it is, following the process as it unfolds and with an open mind looking for possibilities in any natural or societal reality, event, relationship or idea that can be of mutual interest. It is always within the frame of the greater scheme of things and keeping in mind the well-being of society and nature in one and the same movement.