‘I once again see a future for our company’

Profits are under pressure in Dutch cutter fishing. The sector faces low returns and high costs. But new fishing techniques offer a solution. And businesses with strong plans can still count on financing.

‘Whoever thinks the North Sea is gradually being fished to depletion is completely mistaken,’ says Machiel Kamerbeek, Sector Manager at Rabobank. ‘Fish populations in the North Sea have, in fact, done very well in recent years thanks to the strict European quotas for commercial fishing. The flatfish population is particularly flourishing. The North Sea is one of the most sustainably fished seas in the world.’

This is in principle good news for the Dutch cutter fishing sector. ‘This sector has, however, been having a tough time for years,’ says Kamerbeek. ‘The quotas, rapidly rising fuel costs and falling seafood prices combine to place growing pressure on profits. Flatfish cutters are, in particular, encountering difficulties. Many companies can barely keep their head above water.’

Emergency

‘I wasn’t sure whether our business still had a future back in 2010 or so,’ recalls Jan Fokke de Boer, a fisherman from Urk. ‘Those were incredibly tough times. It was hard for our whole family because my son had also become a skipper on our cutter, and his two sons also work on the boat. We obviously hoped we would be able to continue our family business. We would have been devastated to see it go under.’

Jan Fokke de Boer invested several millions of euros in purchasing new fish quotas in 2004. ‘With a loan from our bank,’ says Fred Hoekstra, his account manager at Rabobank Noordoostpolder-Urk. ‘Then the price of diesel fuel surged from 15 to 40 cents a litre. And later it even reached 60 cents a litre. The fuel consumption for a fish cutter like ours is about 30,000 litres a week. So it adds up very quickly. This meant that we had to postpone repayment of the loan.’

Help at hand

While remaining in constant dialogue with Rabobank, De Boer began considering the option of selling his cutter and quota. By that time his son Jan and his two sons took a dim view of their future as fishermen. But just when the situation was becoming untenable, it turned out that help was at hand. Permits for so-called ‘pulse fishing’ – a new and much less expensive method of catching flatfish – came onto the market in the Netherlands in 2011. De Boer registered and, much to his relief, was awarded a permit.

But there was another problem. A sizeable investment was needed in order to prepare the UK95 fish cutter for this new method of fishing. Fred Hoekstra: ‘At the bank we knew that pulse fishing provided a good alternative. We already had two ships on our books that had achieved exceptionally good results through this form of fishing. Despite the client’s poor financial situation, we nonetheless thought the investment was a good idea. What’s more, we know this business owner and his family as people who would fight with heart and soul for their business. That also counted in their favour.’

Future

Profits surged shortly after the J.F. de Boer and Sons company started fishing using the new pulse nets. ‘We save approximately 6,500 euros on fuel every week by using this method of fishing,’ explains Jan Fokke de Boer. ‘We also catch more sole using this method, which yields a higher price than plaice at auction. So we are extremely pleased that Rabobank gave us the opportunity to make this transition to pulse fishing. This local Rabobank is familiar with the sector and knows where the opportunities lie. The bank has always stood behind our business ever since I became a customer 55 years ago. I am very grateful for that.’

Despite the innovations in fishing techniques, Fred Hoekstra does not foresee smooth sailing for flatfish fishing. ‘There is a lot of competition from less expensive imported fish. This means prices will remain under pressure. It continues to be a difficult market. Businesses that want to be successful must focus on effficiency and cooperation. Fewer businesses will have to catch more in order to keep the cost price low enough.’

Fisherman Jan Fokke de Boer now once again envisions a bright future for his family business. ‘The fish we catch are such a fantastic product that we must have a promising future ahead of us. And the fish stock in the North Sea will not be the problem because it is in good shape.’