Brothers Simon and Hans Kay have been fishing all their lives in the Wadden Sea. They are part of the Goede Vissers (Good Fishermen) association, with which a Slow Food Presidia was created in 2012.
The two brothers grew up on the Netherlands coastline where their father had a fishing business. Their father started fishing for eel at a young age without a boat, using small fykes, a long bag-shaped net, along the Afsluitdijk dyke that divides Lake IJssel from the Wadden Sea.
"At that time you could park everywhere along the dyke, their was no highway yet, and the fykes were emptied by fishermen wearing waders at low tide," recalled Simon. "The deeper stakes were put in place by swimming out, but they were never very solid and stormy weather could mess them up. But the catches were good, at least 15 pounds in each of the small fykes and up to 100 pounds! Nowadays you can't imagine such catches."
In fact the eel fishery is no longer profitable today and the eel is an endangered species. However, thanks to the Chinese mitten crab, the brothers still have a reasonable fishery. "The fykes must be kept dirty to catch mitten crabs, so we don't clean them anymore. This means we catch even less eel, but mitten crab is more important for us now give the very low eel population. Furthermore, we hope to contribute to the recovery of our eel stocks by targeting mitten crab instead."
The Kay brothers also inherited a great respect for nature from their father. "A fisherman must make do with what the sea provides, we don't have power over that... So you can't always get what you want, you have to move along with nature," said Hans. Adopting this flexible approach has meant Simon and Hans have also used gill nets and traps to fish other species and for 30 years they had an extra boat to offer angling excursions on the weekends.
Research and management
The Kay brothers monitor the glasaal, the very young eels that migrate from the sea to inland waters via the sluices of Den Oever, and sort by-catch from North Sea fishermen for the IMARES research institute.
According to Simon, "Research is important to obtain the knowledge that enables people to make the right decisions. Unfortunately, too often a decision is taken even though there is enough information illustrating it is the wrong choice. Water purification is a good example. It's very important that there are less poisonous chemicals in our waterways, but now they also want to take all nutrients out. This is unnatural for lowland rivers and canals and in the end the water will be so nutrient-poor that all the eels will have disappeared. I'm sure that if Belgium adopts the same purification installations as here in the Netherlands, the eel stock in the River Maas will drop to the same low levels as we have in the low parts of the Rhine system. We know this will happen, but they still they go on with their plans."
When Simon and Hans were schoolboys their father smoked his eel and they peddled from door to door selling it. Finding ways to process your catch to make more money, instead of catching more fish, is a strategy the brothers learned from their father.
Today, they smoke all the eel they catch. Hans smokes the eel with his partner Nel in their yard in Wervershoof, and they sell the product directly from their home. Simon lives in Den Oever on the shores of IJssel Lake, and his wife José serves eel rolls, coffee and home made apple pie on a beautiful terrace on their property.
Since the brothers don't rely on eel anymore, Hans also smokes grey mullet caught by other local fishermen using gill nets on the shallow flats of the Wadden Sea.