Łukasz : I can tell you why we are here, and not in Poland. I sailed for 9 years in Poland. Then the EU gave us money to decommission our fleet.
Jurek: In my city there used to be 250 fishing boats. Only 50 remained.
J: Here, the same will happen. Two more years, and it will be the same story as in Poland.
L: In addition, there are the catch limits. In our country, the only fish that one can catch unlimited are herring and sprats. All the other fish have quotas. At the Baltic Sea, we used to fish for cod, but we are only allowed to catch cod 3 months a year, and the amount is limited.
Janek van Abeelen: What fish sorts are you catching at the North Sea?
L: We’re after plaice, dab, sole, flounder. Any fish that swims near the bottom. Flatfish.
JA: Where do you fish?
L: We fish in the English, Danish and German waters. We go where the fish are.
JA: How many crewmembers are there on board?
L: Six men. Four Dutch men and us, two Poles.
JA: How long do you stay aboard?
L: We are four or five weeks on the boat, and then two weeks at home.
JA: How did you find work in the Netherlands?
L: We came here through mediation of a Polish temporary employment agency.
Coffee is served.
JA: How did you become fishermen?
L: I had a maritime education.
JA: Was fishing your field of study, or did you have another specialisation?
L: My subject was engineering on maritime vessels. I’m trained as a technician.
JA: Are you working as an engineer on this ship?
L: No. I’m trained as a technician, but because there is already a Dutch technician on board,
I am the cook.
JA: Did you have your maritime education in Poland?
L: Yes. I did two semesters at the maritime academy. Then I was finished.
JA: Do you need extra documents because you work as foreigner in the Netherlands?
L: No. The documents that are provided by the Polish maritime office are accepted all over the world.
JA: A skipper of another fishing vessel with foreign crewmembers told us, that he sometimes had trouble with documents.
L: There can be inspections, of course, but we never had problems. Perhaps the other skipper didn’t have Poles on board. I have been contracted once to sail to Africa and my papers were checked in Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Belgium, Russia, but wherever I was, I never had any trouble. Our Polish certificates are among the most solid in the world, because Poland is very strict.
JA: Do you have any idea what happens to the fish that you caught after unloading?
JA: Do you sometimes eat it yourself?
L: Yes, we had it today for dinner. On any fishing vessel one eats fish, boiled or fried.
JA: Is the fish that you had also eaten in Poland?
L: Yes, it certainly is.
JA: How long have you been working on this ship?
L: For 4 years.
JA: Has the crew been the same during those 4 years?
L: No. It changes all the time.
JA: Can you describe a working day at sea?
L: Jurek is good at telling you that.
J: You throw out the net, and depending what you fish you’re after, you tow the net for about an hour and a half. After that, we rake in and then gut the fish for approximately an hour.
L: This is a specific fishing method. There is also another method, to tow the net at a slower speed. Then you tow longer and gutting takes longer too. That method is called ‘BIM’. Then we tow the net for two, two and a half hours, at a speed of 6,2 or 6,3 knots per hour. There are also vessels that sails only three knots per hour, and tow the net for six hours.
JA: Can you sleep longer if the net is towed longer?
J: Our boat only has one way of towing.
L: The fast way.
J: We can only make short naps.
JA: How is the fishing method called?
JA: Does this method involve dragging chains across the sea floor?
L: Yes, we use elliptical chains, which are attached to metal beams with slides. The chains scrape the sea floor and chase the fish into the net.
J: This method will be used for maximum two more years, because ecologists are protesting against it.
JA: And this is the method that you use?
L: Yes, but soon it will be forbidden to trawl in the North Sea.
JA: What characteristics do you need to do this work?
L: That is a difficult question.
J: If you want to support you family, you work. It’s like that everywhere. When you refer to the lack of sleep: that is something you get used to.
L: In the condition that we work in the Netherlands, one month at sea, then two weeks at home, that’s a good deal. I have a friend who was away from home for half a year.
When I was sailing to Africa, I was away for seven and a half months. My son didn’t recognize me when I got home. I had to get a vaccination at the institute for tropical diseases in Szczecin, against all those African diseases. I got a yellow vaccination booklet. Before, you would get different vaccinations for the different diseases. Nowadays it is all put together in one shot. I was unavailable for two days.
JA: Do you have to apply certificates; do additional training or tests to be able to work on a fishing ship?
J: Well, there is the safety course, which is obligated on any vessel.
L: Also, each of us needs to have a health certificate that is valid in the entire world.
JA: Does the health certificate needs to be annually renewed?
L: No. Every two years. I’ll show you all the certificates we have. … Safety course, in case you or others are in danger… Certificate of Maritime rescuer…. Seaman’s book…
JA: What is registered in the Seaman’s book?
L: The name of the ship, the power of the ship’s engine, who is the owner of the ship, who is the captain, first date of employment contract, where the ship is berthed normally, date of resignation. Every page is for one unit.
JA: Does it also include the names of the ports that you visit while being on board?
L: No. No ports, only vessels.
J: Every contract is in there.
L: Then we have a certificate for personal safety and social responsibility.
J: Al these certificates are obligated by the SAR conventions. (International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue, adopted in Hamburg, 1979)
L: Some of them are not obligated for all seamen, but because my friend and I both have the rank of Officer, we need to comply with stricter qualification requirements.
JA: Do these certificates need to be renewed?
J: Regular seamen need to renew their qualification every 5 years, but ours is valid for a lifetime.
J: We only need to renew one certificate: the individual technical rescue.
J: This takes place every 5 years in Gdynia. It in not only a theoretical assessment, but also a practical test. For example, you have to jump into the water, climb onto a floating raft… This is all done in the water and you need to act as if a real catastrophe is happening. You practice what you need to do if such a situation occurs, how to use the raft, how to survive and helps others.
JA: And the rest of the certificates are for a lifetime?
J: Yes. I also have a qualification to handle the radar in the wheelhouse.
JA: Do Dutch fishermen have these documents?
J: I don’t think so.
L: That is why our Polish documents are highly appreciated. I say this without vaunting.
J: The maritime academy in Gdynia is known all over the world. Gdynia and Szczecin. Both of them are highly esteemed.
L: I studied for two semesters as the academy in Szczecin. After that I had my family and was sailing and studying part time. It was too much. At that school it is not possible to have so many obligations. You need all your time to study.
J: In Gdynia, students who qualify as an officer and finish their studies can be sure to be employed by foreign shipping companies.
J: In Szczecin it is the same.
L: I did two semesters there and was finished.
JA: So that course is only two semesters?
L: Well, I was done with it.
JA: So you didn’t finish the course?
L: No. But in those two months I obtained my diploma as technical officer.
J: After that he continued his study by taking courses.
JA: Did you also study in Szczecin?
J: No. I just did courses. Each of them takes half a year.
L: To become a seaman, you don’t go to a maritime school, follow a course, and get your diploma. It doesn’t work like that. Before you can take your exam, you must have sailed for a certain amount of time. If you want to raise your qualification, you have to again sail for a certain amount of time, and pass an exam.
L: If an ensign sails for five months in a row and meanwhile finishes the academy, he gets an officers diploma. But that’s a long period without income. A certificate costs about 10 euro. But a course takes two months or longer. Depending on the grade. So that’s where the expenses are, because you can’t work while doing a course.
JA: So if you have the time and money to complete the maritime academy, you only need to sail once, but if you follow separate courses, you need to spend more time at sea.
L: That is right. If you want to move up by following course, you need to spend time at sea each time before taking an exam.
JA: You both did courses?
J: It’s like a staircase. Every time a little step.
JA: How long would it take to do the maritime academy?
J: Five years.
L: Do be admitted to this academy, you first need to study at the maritime high school.
J: You must finish this high school to comply for the maritime academy.
L: If you want to get the highest rank, chief engineer or captain, you need to study 10 or 11 years.
JA: Are there inspections when you are at sea?
J: We get visits from the German, English and Dutch coastguards, who’s coming depends on where you fish. They check papers, the size of the meshes of the net. If they are too wide, you pay a fine.
L: They also check the size of the fish. If the fish are too little, there is a huge fine.
J: Sometimes, when custom officers do an inspection, they check everything. They even check what you have in your cupboards.
L: The Russians do these kinds of checks that a lot.
JA: What do you think of the work?
L: When you have just finished the maritime academy, it is fascinating, but now I would say that the work is rather repetitive. If I’m honest, I’m fed up to the black teeth with fishing. Now it is just a financial matter, that’s how I look at it.
J: If this is the line of work you end up in, you just need to keep on going.
JA: Are you proud of the work you do?
L: I’m not. Absolutely not. It’s work for convicts, with long prison sentences. That’s how I see this work.
J: It’s heavy and demanding work. In general being a fisherman means working hard.
JA: Did you picture your future differently when you were studying?
L: I did. I had an entirely different expectation.
J: But I didn’t. In general one sails for money. I’m not sailing for fun. I sail to support my family.
L: During my studies I thought I would work on a cargo vessel. But my wife didn’t agree. I would have been away for long periods. That’s how I ended up working as a fisherman.
JA: So you would prefer working on a freight ship?
L: Definitely. If one had shifts on a freight vessel of 1,5 or 2 months, I wouldn’t work as a fisherman. The working conditions on a cargo ship are much better. If I compare the work on a fishing ship to the work on a cargo ship, the difference is enormous.
JA: How do you know that you are performing your job well?
L: Given that they still want us here, we probably work well.
J: We’ve been here for ages.
L: We’re sailing with them for a long time, so probably we are working well.
J: Others were sometimes sent away after one or two weeks.
J: If someone performs badly, he will not be asked back by the captain.
JA: Can you recognize if someone doesn’t do his work well?
L: You recognise such a person from a long distance.
J: Your immediately see it if someone is being all thumbs.
J: Such a person guts one crate of fish while the others gut three. Why would we work for someone else?
JA: What does your contact look like?
L: Each contract has a starting date, and then there are weekly fluctuations, depending on the shifts. If someone gets ill, or wants a week of, you discuss with the captain how long you will be on board.
L: At trading ships this is very different. There is a starting date, an end date, and a margin of 1 or 2 months before or after. At a fishing ship everything is more erratic.
J: For example, when the fish limit is reached, the captain may send us home for two or three weeks.
JA: So these are weeks without pay. Do you know, when you’re sent away, that you can return?
J: It is always clear if you can come back or not.
L: This is discussed before you leave. Everything is nice and clear in that respect.
JA: So you are not paid per piece rate, but per amount of time?
L: It depends on your arrangement with the captain. Those are all internal affairs. But we are paid per week.
JA: If you have a good week and catch lots of expensive fish, this doesn’t change anything for you?
L: But if the costs of fish week are more expensive than what we bring in, it’s the same.The loss is for the ship owner. He must pay the balance. And our wage.
JA: Who is paying you? The ship owner or the employment agency?
L: We have been hired by a Polish agency, so they are the ones who pay us.
JA: How is your income. Is it sufficient to get by?
J: In normal situations, when we work for a month and then go home for two weeks, all is well. But if there is no work for 3 or 4 weeks, then it becomes tough because the wage doesn’t allow us to create a buffer.
JA: Do you work under Polish or Dutch law?
L: Maritime rules are international. They are the same everywhere.
J: These rules are accepted worldwide.
J: Of course there are national rules that need to be complied, too. But these are the responsibility of the skipper.
JA: Do all crewmembers on board earn the same amount of money?
L: We don’t know really. We never discuss money. How much one earns is one’s personal business.
JA: Did you ever hear of colleagues who didn’t get paid for their work?
L: I heard one or two stories like that. That a few guys had worked on a fishing ship and didn’t get paid. But this only happens when you share in the profit. That’s the private system.
JA: What is the average age of the men on board?
L: Between 33 and 54 years old.
JA: And who is responsible for organising the work?
J: The skipper.
JA: So you have nothing to say about that?
L: No. That is the same for the Dutch crewmembers. The skipper takes all the decisions. He is the captain of the ship. He’s in charge.
J: Everybody has its own place and knows what to do.
L: The captain takes all decisions. His word is law. He is sacred. That is why he is the captain.
J: It’s exactly like he says.
JA: How many hours do you work every day?
J: That’s not easy to calculate.
L: Hmm. Difficult to say. Sometimes we work 28 hours non-stop. Anything can happen, such as trouble with the engine or a torn net.
L: At a fishing ship you never know what will happen. At a cargo ship the working hours are limited, and you know when you will work and when you can sleep.
J: In the early days, on those big boats, I would work for 4 hours, and then sleep for 4 hours. During the night I would work 6 hours. On those big ships, everything goes smooth. There is a huge deck. There are many other people. It’s a small factory, with many people. The fish is frozen on board, or even canned. That’s a more stable working environment. Working hours are more regular. If your shift is finished, you’re really finished, and someone else takes over.
In the days that I worked on one of these ships, every shipping company owned 25 boats with each 100 men aboard. Now a company only owns one vessel.All the other boats have been sold. It wasn’t worth anything anymore.
L: But now he is speaking about those giant fishing ships. On a regular fishing ship it is like being inside a kaleidoscope. If the net breaks, you may need to work for 20 hours uninterruptedly to repair it.
JA: If something like that happens, do you get more time to rest once you are done?
J: The sea has no time to rest. For rest there is the weekend.
L: After such a repair, you return to the rhythm of 1,5 or 2,5 hours of towing the net.
JA: But you are not paid for these extra hours?
J: The work on a fishing ship knows no hours.
L: There is no such thing as an hourly wage.
JA: Only the days are counted?
L: It’s like that.
L: On a cargo ship, one gets paid for extra hours. So if you work more hours, you’ll receive extra pay. You even get overtime pay, which is more than regular pay. But it’s not like that on a fishing ship.
JA: So on a fishing ship the breaks are dictated by the work?
L: That’s how it is.
L: Normally you eat breakfast, lunch and dinner at regular hours. But if there’s some sort of trouble, no one can tell when he’ll get a meal or sleep again.
JA: Does this happen often, that something occurs that overturns the schedule?
L: That depends on the location where we fish, particularly the condition of the seabed. If there are boulders or wrecks lying around.
JA: Does the ship owner provide the meals on board?
J: The social conditions are very good here.
JA: Can you give an example of what you have for breakfast?
J: It varies.
L: Fried eggs, boiled eggs, stirred eggs, omelettes, toast.Chicken, meat. Sometimes, when I return from Poland, I bring home cooked Bigos (a sort of stew from sauerkraut and meat) made by my wife. The Dutch get a bite of it, too.
JA: Another fishermen told us that he has a slice of bacon every day.
L: It differs. Whatever one likes.
JA: Do Polish fishermen differ from their Dutch colleagues?
J: There is no difference. We are doing the same work. But the Dutch spend more time at sea. Every six weeks, we have two weeks off. They only have the weekends. And that an entire life.
L: And they go on holiday once a year.
JA: In the Netherlands, the young fishermen from Urk are known to be fighting in bars in the weekend. How is that in Poland?
L: In Poland there are no fishermen left.
J: I don’t recognize that. The men on board are very quiet.
L: Every young man occasionally fights at a party, whether he is a baker or someone else.
J: It depends on his character.
JA: Does Poland have a tradition of fishing?
J: In Poland, I used to earn very well as a fishermen. Much more than I’m earning here in the Netherlands.
L: Me too.
J: Four times as much.
J: Before, in Poland, you were paid for the fish, for being at sea, and for unloading. In one week, I sometimes earned 500$, which was a lot in those days.
L: If fishing was still like it was back then, I would never have come to the Netherlands. In 3 or 4 days, you would make as much money as people who work on the land in half a year.
J: With such a payment, you could buy a house and live an entire month.
JA: When was this?
J: 20 years ago.
L: For me, 2003 till 2006 were the best years.
JA: Did you fish for the Polish market?
J: No, most of it went to Denmark.
JA: And before 1989?
J: Fishermen and miners, those were looked up to. You were really somebody. They earned the most. Now you are nothing.
L: Our entire fleet could only catch 20 tonnes of cod a year. Debits, harbour tax. There was nothing left to pay the crew.
J: A Swedish ship can catch that in a week. We are all part of the same EU, but for us the rules are different then for them.
JA: Do you know why the difference is so huge?
J: I wouldn’t know.
L: If you don’t know, there is usually money involved.
JA: so the EU introduced these limits for Polish fishermen?
J: Yes, by the EU.
L: Russia is not in the EU. They net cod without limit. On the Baltic Sea too. They catch as much as will fit in their holds.
JA: Did you know this before Poland entered the EU?
L: One could predict this would happen.
JA: So you were not so keen on Poland entering the EU?
L: Of course not. I was not in favour.
J: There were strikes. But it made no difference.
L: Ports were blocked.
L: I took part in the strike at Reda. Four whole days. Didn’t help at all. It was a waste of fuel.
JA: What happened with other fishermen in Poland who lost their job?
J: They all moved away, to Wales, England, France, Belgium, Sweden.
JA: And Germany?
J: Germany too.
L: But in Germany it’s over when it comes to good earnings.
J: Here it will be over too in 3 or 4 years.
L: It’ll soon be over here too. It’s a matter of time.
JA: And then? Where will you go then?
J: I will retire.
L: He will receive his pension next year. I’ll ask around at freight ships if they need me. Then I’ll be at sea for long periods once more.
J: Maybe you win the lottery.
JA: How many kids to you have?
L: I have three kids. They are 9, 4 and 2 years old
JA: What would be your ideal working situation?
J: In Poland.
L: In Poland
J: Close to the family. That’s what matters most.
JA: On what kind of vessel?
L: I would like to work on a pilot boat in the port. I used to work as a pilot before and I liked that a lot. It’s not chaotic.
J: That’s a stable job. On a fishing ship it’s grubbing away.
L: It’s a race after money and time.
JA: How do you think life will be ten years from now?
J: I think there will only be small fishing vessels. Everything that is big will disappear
JA: And personally?
J: I just want to have a decent life when I’m retired. I think anyone would want that.
JA: And being healthy.
J: That is right, health is most important. Money means nothing when you’re not healthy.
Nowadays, in Poland food is even more expensive than in the Netherlands, while people earn less. An average pay is 1500 Zloty, which is 350 euro.
JA: When does your pension start?
J: Because I worked a couple of years in unhealthy circumstances and worked a certain amount of years, I can stop working at the age of 55. But the age for retirement has just been raised to 65 years. As it looks now, the old rules apply for me. But I’m not sure if they will change the rules again. Poland is an unstable country.
There used to be three classes: the poor, the middle-class, and the rich. Now only poor and rich people have remained. The in-between class has disappeared.
JA: What class do you belong to?
J: Well, I’m not with the rich. If I were rich, I wouldn’t be here to work. I haven’t been on a holiday since six years because we don’t have the money for that.
Wages are stable but prices go up. We are okay, with the money we make here. But in Poland, there are people who earn 800-1000 Zloty. That is 250 euro. With so little income, I wouldn’t know how to make do. Prices are the same there as they are here. I don’t know how these people can survive. Our prime minister told us he would turn Poland into a second Ireland. But look what happened to Ireland? Crisis. So it’s better he doesn’t make a second Ireland.
Łukasz and I earn about 1900 euro for a month at sea and already struggle to get by. You mustn’t forget, that every three months we have one month of. So the pay of 2 months is spread over 3. Our average wage is good for a normal life, but without any trimmings.
JA: And you Łukasz .
L: I don’t really know. Time will learn.
J: In Poland you can’t really plan anything.
JA: It is getting late. Perhaps we should rap it up. Is there anything you’d like to add?
L: The theme has been exhausted.
JA: If the film were to be made, would you like to perform in it?
J: I’m not so suitable for performing. My part in it is written by life. ButŁukasz is young. He can become an actor.
L: We don’t have much time. Only in the weekends.
JA: What do you normally do in the weekends?
L: We meet colleagues from other boats and have a beer together.
J: And we go to church. There is a church nearby the port. It is known that every Pole is Catholic.
JA: Are there many Polish fishermen in Harlingen?
J: There used to be more.
L: Now there are 3 or 4 boats.
J: Many ships have been sold.
L: Just the other week a ship was sold. There were 3 Poles on board.
JA: Do you meet local people?
JA: Just the Polish colleagues?
L: Yes. We don’t keep contact with the local fishermen. We know the Urkish crew from our ship, and our Polish colleagues and that’s it.
Tomorrow we return to Poland.
JA: Where in Poland?
J: Władysławowo. The most beautiful city of Poland. My house is 50 meters from the sea.
L: I live in Darłowo – also located at the seashore. Many tourists go there in summer. I’m two kilometres away from the sea. The closest cities are Gdynia, Sopot, Gdańsk, Puck, Władysławowo, Hel.
JA: And you met here on board this Urkish vessel?
J: Yes, we met here. But you (pointing to Łukasz ) used to go out sailing where I live.
L: Yes, we’d go out fishing for salmon and then spent the night right were Jurek lives.
JA: Thanks for this conversation. When we started you both felt that there was not much to tell about fishing, but we talked for more than two hours.
L: You could write a book about it.
When we tried to contact Łukasz and Jurek a few months later to participate in the film, they had both departed the UK 292. Jurek was retired, and Łukasz found work on a dredger in Abu Dhabi. Others have performed their parts. The sentences that we ended up using in the film are marked in italics.