After 13 years of cockle fishing on Oosterschelde again: ‘Extraordinary, so close to home’

For the first time in years, Zeeland cockle fishermen are once again allowed to work in their ‘own water‘: on the Oosterschelde instead of the Wadden Sea.

“I took over the company from my father three years ago. I have never been allowed to fish on the Oosterschelde. For my father it was eighteen years ago. It’s very special, fishing so close to home”, says cockle fisherman Jan Quist to Omroep Zeeland.

There hasn’t been cockle fishing in the Oosterschelde for about thirteen years, says Bert Keus of the Association of Cockle Fishermen. In the few years before, it did happen, but very little, says the province.

Fishing was out of the question for a long time because there weren’t enough cockles. Oystercatchers live mainly from cockle meat in winter. Fishermen are only allowed to work if there is enough left for the birds.

Wageningen University keeps track of the number of cockles in the Oosterschelde estuary. “Every year we take samples. On the basis of those samples we estimate how many cockles there are. Each oystercatcher needs 165 kilos of cockle meat. If there are more cockles than the birds need, there is still room for fishermen,” says researcher Karin Troost.

Lots of seedfall

There are now many cockles left for fishermen because in 2018 there was suddenly a lot of seed traps among cockles. This may be because there is more fresh water flowing into the Oosterschelde than before, says Bert Keus of the Association of cockle fishermen. Many of the animals that are caught now are two years old.

Mechanical cockle fishing is prohibited in the Netherlands. Only manual fishing is allowed. “I never have to go to the gym, because it’s quite heavy work,” says cockle fisherman Jan Quist.

The animals are sieved out of the bottom with the help of a kind of rake, to which a net is attached. When the tide rises or falls, the fishermen wade up a sandbank in a wading suit to fish, until there is only a layer of water left, which can be seen at Omroep Zeeland. Quist: “We are very dependent on the position of the water. It can’t be too high or too low.”

Sensitive to heat and cold

There are just over thirty cockle fishermen in the Netherlands, almost half of whom are Zeelandic. According to the province, some twenty cockle fishermen have permission to work on the Oosterschelde estuary. There are all kinds of conditions attached to this.

Because cockles are quite sensitive to too hot or too cold weather, it may also be that suddenly there are not enough cockles again to continue fishing in the Oosterschelde. In case of overfishing, the fishermen have to stop again.