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Examples of a Holistic Economy: Saltwater Economy

Cover for Pari Perspectives 2: The Quest for Wholeness
This essay was published in
the December 2019 issue of Pari Perspectives.

This essay unveils the basic tenets underlying the work of the Foundation for Integrated Fisheries (SGV), a cutting-edge social entrepreneurial organization whose modus operandi is co-operating with the natural and cultural environment instead of controlling and exploiting it. This modus operandi is based on a worldview called Salt Living.

Vulnerability Instead of Controllability 

In today’s society, says Jaap Vegter, the initiator of SGV, we have forgotten what it is like to be vulnerable. We imagine ourselves to be bigger than the sea, and that sometimes seems to be the case. Larger ships don’t capsize so easily. And if nothing goes wrong for long enough, we start to believe that we are stronger than the sea. But it’s more complicated than that, and not just at sea.

It is also about doing business differently; in harmony with the environment, with something bigger than ourselves. And you can do that only by understanding and accepting your vulnerability, your dependence. That dependence leads you to connect with something bigger, to understand it and plumb its depths, and find ways of working with it instead of trying to control it—to devise and shape ways of working in partnership with the environment. This is what we call Salt living.

Salt living is the opposite of freshwater living. The former cooperates with nature while the latter tries to control it, and this fundamental difference underlies other differences in these two modi operandi. Salt living requires an awareness of not being in control. Control of the sea is not possible: you have to live with the tides, with what nature allows you to do. The SGV are seafaring people and know that they are part of something bigger, something besides themselves that they must both work with and become one with. It involves relatedness, adventure, vulnerability, being in harmony with the whole. Freshwater thinking, on the other hand, comes from the Dutch tradition of controlling water, of pitting themselves against it: building dykes, damming lakes and parts of the sea. It is all about constraining nature. It’s about control, fragmentation and the removal of uncertainty, of vulnerability.

SGV is a collective of Dutch fishermen whose aim is to fish on a small scale on the mud flats or wadden in the Wadden Sea. The core of SGV is formed by a group of fishermen who work together on a practical and viable future for coastal fishing with small vessels. It is based on the principles of salt living—who embark from small or large tidal ports, from the islands or the beach. They believe the future is not in larger catches, but in the quality and wide variety of fish, crustaceans and shellfish that are caught; that is, flexible working with nature, the sea and the seasons, taking into account the wishes of society. The vision is for vibrant ports with activity that fits into the coastal landscape and provides employment for coastal residents.  

Because the mud flats are a protected area of special natural interest, SGV explores ways of fishing in harmony with the sea. It does so by developing fishing gear, respecting the seasons and responding actively to changes in fish stocks by scaling its fishing efforts up or down and by catching different species. By working in partnership with fishing communities, the government, nature conservationists and the supply chain in an ongoing dialogue, they pursue their unique form of sustainable development where the sea makes the rules.

A Different Way of Fishing

Jaap says there are many more improvements to be made: ‘Exactly what they are, we’ve still to work out.’ Henk says: ‘We don’t know for definite why fish stocks are declining. So we’re experimenting with fishing for different species and with different fishing methods. We are constantly studying the effects of the options we are trying out. By taking samples and conducting measurements, but also by talking to nature conservationists and combining their knowledge and experience with our own. In the process we are gradually developing a sustainable way of fishing.’

A Different Kind of Customer

Other species that SGV’s members fish for include smelt and Japanese oysters. It’s not always easy to find customers for these. The Dutch are not keen on such exotic fare, which is one reason for working in partnership with restaurants. Chefs often want to serve something more exciting than a salmon steak and are therefore eager to see what they can do with different fish. Another reason for working with restaurants is to give fish from the mud flats a more exclusive cachet on the market. 

As Gaele Postma, fisherman and fish shop owner, explains: ‘We land our fish fresh every day. You can’t get fresher. And the mud flats are a unique area. The fish from there is a delicacy in our view, and should be marketed as such. Not sold in bulk but delivered fresh every day to restaurants and the better fishmongers, that’s our aim.’

This is an aim that appeals to restaurateur and chef Henk Markus: ‘The initial incentive to work with local and organic produce came from Wakker Dier (the Dutch animal welfare organisation). They threatened action if the duck liver paté wasn’t taken off the Christmas menu. I didn’t respond to that. But later on I decided to adopt simple, honest cooking as a basic principle and to use more organic and local produce. Wakker Dier had got me thinking. I’ve always been interested in regional produce; people underestimate the excellent products that we have around us here. It’s just a pity that most producers have trouble working together. You have to go all over the region, there’s no umbrella organisation. You have to build up a network yourself and find out who does what.’

This is an example of working in harmony with the mud flats and the supply chain.

Jaap Vegter says that SGV is putting its back into marketing its products but he acknowledges the criticism from Henk Markus. Not only are they failing to reach out enough to their customers, they can’t always deliver what they have promised. In bad weather, small boats can only fish close to the coast or perhaps can’t even sail at all. And then your catch is limited or non-existent.

‘We can only solve that,’ says Jaap, ‘in partnership with the restaurants and fish shops. In the same way that we do with the fishermen and nature conservationists when it comes to fishing more sustainably. For example, we are holding a dialogue with various chefs to find recipes for less well-known species of fish, brainstorming with restaurateurs about putting seasonal produce on the menu and talking to people in the community about ways of delivering the fish on time to the shops and restaurants. Step by step, we’ll get there.’ 

Act First, Think Later

‘We took a conscious decision not to think everything through and organise it in advance. Precisely because we don’t know how new ways of fishing or marketing the fish will work out, we say let’s just do it and then find out as we go along what works and what doesn’t; where we can improve or perhaps where we need to stop doing something.’

It is this partnership with the community, the supply chain and nature conservationists that sets SGV apart from other fishermen. They don’t rely on standard answers and are prepared to try out untested ideas. Working in partnership makes them strong, as does the constant discussion of their plans and continual re-evaluation of all the interests involved, with the aim of arriving jointly at the best decisions for community, mud flats and fishermen alike. 

Finding a balance between doing certain things differently and discussing them at the same time appears to be bearing fruit. Customers can see what you’re doing and what you’re capable of. That makes it easier to sell them something. And nature conservationists know that you are sharing all of your information with them and laying it openly on the table; what you’re sure about and where you have doubts. That gives them the confidence to say, ‘OK, go ahead,’ even though we don’t yet know the precise outcome. In that sense, SGV is perhaps more an economic movement than simply a business. Step by step, they are finding out how sustainable fishing can also be profitable for everyone in the supply chain, and for nature.

Dynamic Environment

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.

Author bio

Godelieve Spaas is professor of Sustainable Strategy and Innovation at Avans University of Applied Science in the Netherlands. She is a researcher and also creates and makes performances and podcasts about new ways of entrepreneurial organizing where ecology, society, and the economy all benefit from and interact seamlessly with each other. Her aim is to increase diversity in organizational and entrepreneurial models and realities with a view to the development of a fairer, more sustainable and robust entrepreneurial space. She combines art, science, entrepreneurial practices and indigenous knowledge.

Godelieve also co-creates new businesses that are collaborative, inclusive and work in harmony with nature. 

Godelieve Spaas is associate director of the Pari Center and a regular guest in Pari, a place where she writes, participates in dialogues, and follows and gives courses.