Monday, December 31, 2007
Tonight is my last night in Copenhagen, and quite a last night it was. I spent the past week with my family, partaking in exciting Danish traditions such as dancing around the Christmas tree and singing Chanukah O Chanukah (ok, well, most Danes sing Christmas songs) and continuing the classic American Christmas tradition of watching movies and eating Chinese food.
Here's the family about to partake in an actual Danish tradition of eating a marzipan pig (the traditional gift for the one who finds the whole almond in their rice pudding, also something we sampled, though we all shared the "prize").
And Mom and Jason warming themselves in the evening at Tivoli Gardens.
But after they left this morning, I had New Year's Eve on my own to celebrate with the Danes.
In general, I've found Denmark to be a much better organized, tamer country than the US - trains run on time, streets are clean, people are generally polite. But Danish new year's celebrations are, well, crazy. A nice Indian man I stood next to in the main square in town to watch the festivities said it was much more "grand" than anything he was used to, but I stand by crazy.
In the US, I'm also used to new year's being a time for fireworks...but in the parts of the US where I've lived most of my life, fireworks are set off by trained professionals in pre-arranged displays. Not here - in Denmark (as in Iceland) it seems that anyone can get a batch of fireworks and set them off in downtown Copenhagen.
To my American sensibilities, this seems like a horribly bad idea. There were fireworks shooting off in all directions, across the ground and towards buildings and young children throwing sparklers along the sidewalks. The favorite, however, seemed to be explosives without the firework that would boom so loudly that they left my ears ringing and literally shook the sidewalk. These were thrown right in the road, where buses, taxis, and later police and ambulance vans drove right past, seemingly unphased by the explosions.
Here's a video of the smoke from one of them (I missed the bang, but it was loud), immediately followed by many of the police vans that came to monitor the action.
Once I got past the shock of regular ground-shaking explosions and having to check for lit fuses before crossing a street, it was really exciting to watch - much more so than the sort of fireworks displays I'm used to, though I still have a nagging sense that somehow this must be a bad idea if the evening requires so many ambulances. But, hey, who am I to question a cherished Danish tradition?
Plus, it was really fun to watch, no tickets or whole-day waits required, and definitely not something I'd see at home. Here's what the fireworks looked like over the crowd at midnight - all, mind you, set off by individuals, not as part of any organized show.
It was certainly an exciting conclusion to my three months in Denmark and to 2007. Early tomorrow (today) I'm flying to London and then heading north to Scotland for further adventures beginning the next phase of my project in the new year.
But for now, here's wishing you all the best for 2008!
Saturday, December 22, 2007
Bike rides through the countryside
Bicycles are a popular mode of transportation in Denmark, much more so than in the US, and there are many nice paths and roads through the forest and countryside, so I borrowed a bicycle and spent many lovely days biking around northern Jutland. Though not all excursions were as eventful as this one, it was a good way to get to know the area. Lots of rape seed fields, producing both rape seed oil and, recently, bioethanol. It’s very flat, and I joked that without the windmills I would have thought I was in the Midwest.
I had such a good time at my first Danish folk dance in Hjørring that I kept going back – every other week in Hjørring and another dance (more like a lesson, though the instructions were in Danish and thus less helpful for me) weekly in Tornby, about half way between Hirtshals and Hjørring. Although I wouldn’t say I’m quite good at Danish folk dancing, by this point I’m at least decent – hopefully I’ll remember well enough to schottis and hambo (Swedish dances, but also done in Denmark, along with some Danish variations) once I get back home and go dancing in Greenfield again.
Benches set up during the break in the middle of the dance for coffee and snacks and for group singing of traditional Danish songs (one of my favorite parts, even though I usually needed explanations of what they were about).
Some blurry pictures of the dances themselves:
My Danish dancing shoes, which I borrowed from a woman who had been a dance instructor in Sweden for many years and was very helpful in explaining some of the steps to me in English. These were the first real dancing shoes I’ve ever had, and made me feel much more authentic.
It was sad to leave behind the dancing…but hopefully I’ll get more chances to try local dances in Scotland and Newfoundland and build a repertoire of North Atlantic folk dancing to go along with my new knowledge of North Atlantic fisheries.
Hirtshals nightlife (ok, not quite, but some good times with fun people)
While I was in Hirtshals, I stayed at the guesthouse for North Sea Center researchers and got to know a number of interesting people who came in and out while I was there – ranging from zookeepers-in-training to Scottish fishermen visiting the flume tank for a training course to fisheries biologists. It was quite a diverse crowd. The three people who were there for most of the same time as me were Andrea, a Brazilian sociologist analyzing her research on fisheries communities in Spain, Maria, a Mexican fisheries biologist studying stress responses in fish, and Benedikt, an Austrian masters student in aquaculture doing a one-semester internship in a place that actually has some ocean (for those of you rough on your geography, Austria is quite decidedly land-locked).
There aren’t too many exciting places to go in Hirtshals – we visited the local pubs a few times, but it turned out that the bowling alley right down the road was the liveliest place on the weekends. It felt eerie to be in a place that felt so, well, American, but we had a good time.
We also held some small dinner parties together, which was fun both to not have to cook just for one and to sample other people’s home cooking. For one memorable dinner, Benedikt “caught” us a cod (actually, he bought it off a fisherman at the harbor) and Andrea cooked Brazilian-style fish.
And, of course, we practiced our Danish. Skål! (Cheers!)
And now onwards I must go, to see and learn and, you know, do stuff.
(This picture is from one of the regular daily presentations for visitors at the tank. Note the ridiculous-looking sunfish – in Danish called a klumpfisk, a name that more appropriately describes the fish’s ungainly awkwardness – which is considered the aquarium’s main star.)Nothing like sampling the best fish the North Sea has to offer right in front of the real live fish of the North Sea. This did seem a little odd, but fairly in keeping with the themes of the rest of the museum, which focuses on the fish species’ value to the fishing industry and how they are caught, processed, and sold rather than focusing on fish biology or North Sea ecology.*
So in case visitors were wondering, the sign over the aquarium cod makes sure to let them know that cod is good for eating…shown by labeling the fish with a picture of a fish on a plate with a knife and fork. Mmm, tasty aquarium fish.
And then during the dinner in front of the tank (which, though the chef joked that he was a little nervous preparing fish for so many fishermen, was very very good), there was a show in the tank with a scuba diver feeding the fish.
I had seen the fish fed by the diver before as part of the normal presentation for regular visitors, but normally they do the presentation in Danish and for the international visiting crowd they did it in English instead, which I greatly appreciated.
I’m not usually one for fancy events, but I could get used to this kind of thing.
I first got to see the flume tank in October, when the tank was open for the public in celebration of its 25-year anniversary. Although the tank has come to be well-known worldwide, it’s a pretty expensive facility and as such generally only used for research projects or development of large (and thus expensive) nets for large boats*, and thus many local fishermen in Hirtshals, including the former fisherman I’d met just the week before at the folkedans, had lived walking distance from the tank for years and never actually seen it. The net demonstrated for this open-house was an experimental bottom trawl with square bottom panels as an alternative to the rockhopper gear generally used along the bottom of the net. The idea of the change is that though the rockhopper does indeed “hop” over rocks, it hops fairly considerably, which lets out a lot of the fish – plus, this traditional trawl gear has generally been considered as to cause potential damage to the seabed. The alternative square panels, however, flip up individually, so that they let out fewer fish and are thought to be less damaging to the seabed.
Along with the demonstration of the net in the tank, they also played video footage taken from a test of the net on a pair trawler (convenient for comparing experimental and control nets since the two are towed side by side by the same ship) in the Barents Sea. They mounted a video camera on the headrope (top) of the net looking back and it was really very cool to see how the fish behaved once they got caught (herded, really) in the net, and you could see that more escaped from the standard rockhopper net.
I’ve long thought that gear technology provides some of the best solutions to fisheries problems – rather than requiring limiting regulations to avoid bycatch of unwanted species or catch of juveniles or damage to the environment, many of the problems can be minimized by modifying the actual gear used for fishing. In any case, I was excited enough by this demonstration and by the potential of this flume tank to combine fishermen’s needs and policy/science-driven experimentation that I was determined to see some more of how this tank was used in practice. Which I had the chance to do on two different occasions – one an experimental use of the tank to modify an existing net and the other a workshop for fishermen to see their nets in action.
In mid-November, I came back to the tank to watch a test of an experimental net used for sampling salmon fry. Since one of the main complaints made by fishermen against scientific surveys is that the scientists do not test or update their fishing gear to successfully catch fish (scientists, on the other hand, will tell you that the purpose of surveys is not to catch fish but to sample the same locations using the same methods from year to year to have a frame of reference for comparison of stock sizes from year to year; I think both points have merit and have been largely discounted from by the other party – maybe more on this another time), it was interesting if just for the fact that it was a test of a scientific survey net.
Even more interesting than the net itself, though, was getting to see how nets are measured while in the flume tank – how this state-of-the-art gear research actually works. Although the system is highly sophisticated, the methods used to measure the important parameters of how the net works (mostly focused on the dimensions of the net at different points while towing – here mimicked by water circulation – at different speeds) are fairly simple, based on moving cameras with sensitive position coordinates until they point to the exact points to be measured and then determining the distance between the cameras. Elegantly simple.
Based on the initial results, the team working at the flume tank can also make slight alterations to the design of the net – how it is rigged, the choice of doors used to keep the net open, etc. and then re-try the net to see the effect of these changes.
Most netmakers, unlike those working for scientific research vessels, have another purpose in mind beyond designing the best nets: convincing fishermen to buy them. And so another important function of the flume tank is that it allows fishermen who use these nets come and see how they look underwater. This is useful because it provides fishermen with up-to-date information on the available gear technology and helps them understand how they can get the best performance out of their own gear, but also because it helps gear companies sell their products. And so I had the opportunity to spend three days attending a flume tank workshop held by Hampiðjan, an Icelandic netmaking company and one of the leading gear technology companies in the world, with net lofts all over – Lithuania, Russia, New Zealand, Namibia, Denmark, Ireland, Norway, the Faeroe Islands, Newfoundland, and the USA.
The workshop participants were similarly from all over the world – from South Africa to Alaska, Iceland to Argentina, and mostly captains aboard large fishing vessels, which meant that they were the people who saw these nets in action more often than anyone else and also the people most interested in staying at the cutting edge of fishing technology. For three days, they watched net after net demonstrated in the flume tank and attended seminars on new fishing technology, both nets and other products shown and sold by other companies at the workshop, including strong but lightweight ropes and remote sensing technology used to determine how the trawl is working while in the water.
The skippers all seemed interested in learning as much as they could about this new technology, particularly things they might be able to try on their own boats – everyone wants to have the best gear out there.
Even fishermen from Iceland, where the ability to catch is strictly based on quotas and the decision of how much to catch is theoretically decided based on market prices, quality of the fish available, processing capacity, etc. (at least according to the office-based employees I talked to from the large companies), were set on talking about which fishermen were best based on who was able to catch the most, and any gear that could help gain that edge to catch more fish was thus extremely desirable. The development director for Hampiðjan explained to me that different people within industry focus on different objectives: the skipper wants to catch the most, the engineer wants to use less fuel, and the fleet manager wants to make the most money. By providing new technology, of course, companies like Hampiðjan try to make it easier to accomplish all these goals.
Inherent in this is also an ingrained desire for progress, to remain at the forefront of the industry. Although many of the new nets shown throughout the workshop and many of nets and other types of gear advertised seemed to provide important improvements over previous fishing methods, there also seemed to be a trend towards trying new products just for the sake of progress itself. As a South African skipper explained to me, “as soon as you think you’re on top of the game, you’re starting to lose it…that’s fishing.” Experimenting with new gear had worked well for him: he described fuel savings and higher quality catch with a new net he had switched to, but he also openly admitted that he hadn’t focused on these specific factors when deciding on the new net but mostly just wanted to keep improving and not keep using the same gear. A Faeroese netmaker explained the desire for new technology by saying that fishermen are much like schoolchildren with a new toy – once you convince one to try a new net, they all want it. This is also a tendency he had learned how to capitalize on: he says he always makes sure to test a new net with the most successful fisherman with the best boat, and then when he catches the most fish (as always), other fishermen will say it was because of the net and want to try it themselves. Unlike the fishermen, who seemed very focused on the ability to catch fish, this netmaker said the main limiting factor was actually the ability to process fish onboard the boat – those with a greater processing capacity, he said, are thought to be better fishermen when really they just have better boats.
I kept wondering, though, whether all this new technology was really as necessary as it was made out to be by the companies trying to sell their gear. I understand the point made by the president of Scanmar, the company selling remote sensing devices to measure the trawl’s performance while in use, that “there’s so much money hanging back there” that these boat’s cannot afford to not be successful on their fishing trips – and thus, he says, cannot afford to not use his technology. What wasn’t entirely clear from the workshop, however, was why large, expensive boats with fancy, expensive gear are better than smaller lower-tech boats. If everyone agrees that there’s a finite amount of fish that can be caught by each boat – we can quibble later over how much and who gets to decide how much goes to each boat, but in most places today determined by how much quota share you have purchased, not your ability to catch the most fish – do you really need the newest, fanciest equipment? In a lot of cases, new technology seems to be helping to maximize the amount of profit from fishing: reducing fuel costs, increasing selectivity and reducing damage while in the net to improve quality, replacing the high number of fishermen on numerous small vessels with fewer, better-paid fishermen on fewer, larger vessels. I’m still not sure whether profit maximization in and of itself is a desirable goal – it’s the point where pure economics begins to mix with cultural and social values, always a messy process.
Even without answering this question, though, developments in gear technology still hold significant promise since they provide consumers with higher quality fish and use less fuel, both important goals in their own right in addition to allowing fishermen to catch less without losing money, and also can be more selective about the fish caught (reducing bycatch of both unwanted species and of juveniles) and can reduce unwanted negative environmental impacts. Although at this workshop, everything was presented as a way of improving profit (reduce fuel expenses, increase quality and thus selling price of catch, reduce unwanted bycatch in order to more carefully select which quotas to use and to avoid breaking regulations), it also provides an opportunity to “slip in” modifications to gear and fishing technique that help with sustainability.
Fuel savings was one of the main themes of this workshop due to the high fuel prices that today make up a considerable percentage of the cost for a fishing trip. (See my earlier musings on worries about fuel use in fisheries here).
Most of the fuel-saving techniques presented were variations on the theme of reducing the trawl’s resistance while being pulled through the water, a very energy-intensive operation. Ways to do this ranged from using stronger but lighter-weight ropes and netting to new designs of nets and trawl doors that produce less resistance in the water to adjustments in the rigging and alignment of different components of the net to get the maximum fishing capacity out of each haul.
Size- and species- selectivity has also become increasingly important to fishermen as they have to adjust to regulations that restrict both what and how much they are allowed to catch. This net was developed by an Irish netmaker for pelagic boats in the Shetland Islands. With reduced quotas, the fishermen wanted to make sure they were only catching the largest – and highest-priced – fish, and so they designed a net with separator panels to allow small fish to escape. (In this model, I’m a particular fan of the illustrations of the escaping fish.)
I should mention here that the president of Scanmar was particularly adamant that this type of size selection is a bad idea for pelagic species, since he says that 80% of fish that escape through meshes in nets do not survive. I know that some pelagic species (particularly herring) are easily damaged by being touched, unlike hardier groundfish, but can’t tell you for sure what the “truth” might be. (This is a common theme I’m finding in fisheries – it’s not just that people disagree about interpretations or priorities about what to do with fish, but also about basic facts. My natural inclination is to say we need more science, but here even science is seen as just one of many viewpoint.)
For me, though, the most interesting of the nets were the ones designed to avoid cod. Whatever you might think about the reductions in cod quotas or the actual amount of cod in the sea, the fishermen have been facing the tricky task of trying to catch other groundfish – mostly haddock, redfish, and flatfish – without catching cod. This has been tried before – while at Williams-Mystic, I heard about the development of the Eliminator Trawl at Rhode Island Sea Grant, a net that is designed with particularly large meshes in the bottom of the net so that cod, which swim downwards once in the net, can escape, while haddock, which swim upwards, remain in the net. With the New England haddock fishery consistently being closed before the quota has been reached due to excessive cod bycatch, the idea of the Eliminator was to allow fishermen to catch more of the haddock they were trying to target while avoiding the cod. I also heard that the same principle was tried in Scotland and Ireland 25 years ago, but for some reason never caught on.
With the reduction in the cod quota in Iceland, where discards are illegal (unlike in the EU, where discards are mandatory and thus fishermen have been required to throw back large quantities of cod), it is imperative that fishermen be able to target groundfish species for which they have quota without catching too much cod. Knowing that this will be an important need for the next few years, and not just in Iceland but throughout the North Atlantic, Hampiðjan has developed new bottom trawls that allow cod to escape.
This giant net, brand new (has never been used, and brought out for sale for the first time at the workshop), is designed to catch redfish and haddock but not cod, specifically in response to the cod quota reduction in Iceland.
This net uses a separator panel between the top and bottom of the net to sort between cod and haddock, which collect in two separate cod ends. This is convenient because it allows the fisherman to decide just how selective to be: if he doesn’t want any cod, he can leave the cod end open, but if he wants to just catch the very largest cod while being less selective about haddock, he can also use two different cod ends to keep all the haddock but let more of the cod escape.
Although unfortunately fisheries management has many problems that can’t be solved by designing new gear technology, I must say that this is one of my favorite ways to deal with problems in fishing. Rather than making rules and setting up restrictions, you provide a tool to help the fishermen catch only what they want and reduce the unwanted side effects. Though I may not be an unqualified advocate of progress for its own sake, this is a prime example of the power of progress.
*Most nets tested in this tank are built and tested at a 1:10 scale, and even a few of the nets demonstrated for Hampiðjan just barely fit or couldn’t be rigged quite as they would in real-life due to size constraints. Jesper, a former fisherman and now an economist studying fisheries at IFM, reckons that the small trawl net he used to fish with (fairly normal for small-boat fishing) is the only net that’s been tested in the flume tank at full size. Since most fishermen don’t happen to have become social scientists and become friends with other researchers at the North Sea Center, they generally don’t have the opportunity to try this.
On Saturday, I went to walk around downtown during the few hours of light and came across a Christmas market set up in the main pedestrian street, which was completely full of sales stalls and trailers, throngs of people, and even a fire and haybale benches right in the middle of the street where women were serving coffee and handing out samples of lefse spread with butter and cinnamon sugar.
It was quite a street party for a cold, dark December day. And certainly the place to be to buy pre-Christmas necessities. And of course among those pre-Christmas necessities was a lot of fish.
All the plastic bags on this table were full of fish of different kinds – gravlaks, lutefisk, sei (saithe), and of course many preparations of torsk (cod). Even as fish has become less important in many parts of the world including Norway, it holds its traditional role here in the north.
One of the most traditional of these torsk preparations is stockfish, which is dried to produce a hard board-like piece of fish that can easily be stored for many months (the original reason for its popularity in the era before refrigeration).
But I had my eye on getting a piece of lutefisk to try. The man who sold my piece from out of his trailer-store seemed dubious – probably because I asked for a very small piece and had to ask in English. Obviously, I had no idea what I was doing.
Yup, still with skin and fins. I poked it, and it did feel kind of like jelly. I smelled it, and it smelled like fish.
And then, I have to admit, I had no idea what to do next. As far as I could tell, you just boil and eat it right like that. But, hoping for some instructions, I planned to take it back with me to Denmark and eat it there once I could use my internet sleuthing skills to look up some cooking advice. And alas, once back in Denmark, the fish had begun to smell much more insistently and I became increasingly dubious…and I never actually ate it. I had good intentions, I promise, but it didn’t quite work out as planned (story of my life, folks). So the moral of the story is that if you want to know about lutefisk, you’ll have to find out yourself. All the Norwegians I asked said they liked it, and I hear it can be found in Minnesota (even in gas station stores!), so maybe it’s worth a try.
Friday, December 7, 2007
It has been a bit of a crash course in Norwegian fisheries – I’d read a lot before coming here, but just walking down the corridors here and talking with people has opened up a whole slew of new issues (negotiations with Russia over the Barents Sea fishery, the tension between the northern and southern parts of the country, the difficulties of maintaining the rural coastal settlements as fishing becomes a less attractive profession, the effects of quota-driven reductions in the number of fishermen on community structure in coastal areas, issues of special rights for the Sami aboriginal group mostly known for reindeer herding but also seasonally dependent on fishing in fjords in the northernmost province of Finnmark). Unlike Denmark, there are still whole regions of Norway that are largely dependent on fisheries, and unlike Iceland, those regions are still largely organized around the coastal fishing fleet rather than industrial-scale trawlers. With less than a week here, I don’t think I’ll have the chance to get any deeper into the actual life of the fishery here than discussions with the social scientists and biologists and the regional fisheries directorate (the government administrative arm), but I feel like I at least have a general overview of the main issues in Norway.
Even though I haven’t been able to directly experience the fisheries themselves, however, being in Tromsø has definitely introduced me to the experience of a northern Norwegian winter. Located at 69°40′N, Tromsø is experiencing a true Arctic winter – the sun does not come above the horizon again until sometime near the end of January.
This does not mean that there is no light at all here: there are a few hours of twilight in the middle of the day, which is enough light to see by for a few hours. The light quality is also fantastic – all the pinks and oranges and blues of a gorgeous sunrise (coming more from the south than from the east or west) over the tops of the mountains.
The climate here is not as cold as you probably imagine when you think of the Arctic – since Tromsø (and indeed pretty much all of northern Norway, which is a very thin strip of land) is on the coast and this side of the Atlantic is warmed by the Gulf Stream (the reason Europe isn’t as cold as northern Canada), the temperature remains just around freezing. It doesn’t actually feel any colder than the winters I’m used to from home – the main difference, though, is that there is an admirable snow cover everywhere since the temperatures don’t rise enough for the snow to melt. This is a definite improvement over northern Denmark’s wind and rain, and I am actually rather enjoying the weather.
I've spent a lot of time outside walking through the snowy paths and roads, but haven’t had the chance to enjoy the snow properly, like the school children here who get to go sledding every day during the period of light in the middle of the day, or for older students, go cross-country skiing through the woods.
Since there’s so little light, it’s important that everyone, but kids in particular, get to go outside while it’s light out in the middle of the day.
I’m only here until Monday morning, when I head back to Denmark for another few weeks, but I really wish I had planned to spend more time in Norway (I am considering how I might be able to come back here for longer later in the year…more on that later if it pans out). For now, though, I’m glad I decided to come here – not just for the fish or because I can now say I’ve been to the Arctic, but because it’s absolutely gorgeous. I couldn't have picked a better place to spend Chanukah (the buildings on the right are where I've been living, and lighting my Chanukah candles, this week).
*Technically, in fact, Tromsø is not considered to experience polar night because of the amount of twilight light in the middle of the day. But since I’ve never gone more than 24 hours before without actually being able to see the sun in the sky (and I may never get far enough north to actually experience official polar night), this feels momentous enough for me to consider polar night.