The Fisheries and Maritime Museum undertakes the role of special museum for Danish fishing industry

In Denmark, fishing has always played an important part in the daily lives of folk who live near the coast. From the fishing of herrings in the Middle Ages to the whalers of the 15th and 16th centuries, the importance of fishing catches has always been felt. Cod, salmon and eels have been caught with innumerable types of equipment throughout Denmark, and at the end of the 1800s, with the invention of the anchor seine and the rich supply of plaice, Denmark became one of the greatest fishing nations in the world.
Fishing has taken place along the entire Danish coast throughout history, and at times, has attracted workers from rural areas and towns. Probably the most famous is the large-scale fishing for herring in the waters of Øresund (the Sound) in the Middle Ages. It was normal practice to supplement one’s farming or work as a casual labourer with fishing, and only a few places such as Skagen and Harboøre had full-time fishermen.
Fishing with baited hooks on longlines was usual in Danish waters. As late as the early 20th century, longlines were used to catch cod off the west coast of Jutland, and on Bornholm, fishermen tied hooks on long, fixed lines – links – to catch salmon. Fishing with longlines was hard work, and on the west coast fishermen were dependent on skilled baiter-girls who would bait thousands of hooks every day in the fishing season. After 1880 fish could be sold in the cities of Europe thanks to the railway from west Jutland, and longline fishing expanded – but only for a brief period, as cutters with new equipment increased their range on the North Sea after 1900 and eventually dominated the Danish fishing industry since then. One key person in this development was a poor smallholder named Jens Væver, who invented a new fishing method – the anchor seine.
Soon the anchor seine was introduced by fishermen from north Jutland to the newly-constructed harbour in Esbjerg, and conditions in the North Sea off Esbjerg were particularly well-suited to fishing with the anchor seine. After 1900, Esbjerg became the most important Danish anchor seine harbour, and fishermen from all over Denmark flocked there to fish for plaice. Together with the new, effective motorised cutters, the new equipment invigorated Danish fisheries, and from 1920 to 1960 Danish fishermen and wooden cutters could be seen in nearly every fishing harbour around the North Sea. Anchor seining is the most original Danish contribution to the development of fishing in the world at large, but it lost its importance when the dismantling of fishing boats accelerated in the 1980s; since that time, fishing for plaice in the North Sea has been dominated by trawlers.
The age of wooden cutters on the North Sea lasted until the 1980s, when the fishing industry became increasingly regulated by quotas and other limitations. Many North Sea cutters started to fish for herring and other breeds for use as animal feedstuffs with trawl nets. This was called ‘trash fish’ or industrial fishing, and the catch was turned into fish meal and fish oil. Industrial fishing made a lot of money, and new, bigger steel fishing boats were built to replace the wooden vessels. While fishing grew even more effective, limitations were introduced so that fewer vessels had to share the work of catching fewer fish. Hundreds of light blue cutters were scrapped, and over 40 years the number of fishermen fell by 80%. In 2007 a new form of fisheries regulation was introduced to Denmark with individually transferable quota shares. This started a widespread development that concentrated quota shares among fewer fishing vessels and a renovation of the fishing fleet. The number of fishermen and vessels fell, whereas on the other hand, the profitability of fishing was improved for the majority of the remaining fishing businesses.



Inventor of the anchor seine

In the museum there is a statue of Jens Væver. who invented the anchor seine, which after 1900 helped to make Esbjerg the biggest and most important fishing port, attracting fishermen from all over Denmark. Together with new, efficient engine-powered cutters, the anchor seine successfully launched the Danish ocean-going fishing industry.

Jens Væver (1822-1914), inventor of the anchor seine.

1868

Historical dates

It was the energetic Minister of the Interior J.B.S. Estrup, who guided the law on the construction of a harbour at Esbjerg through the Danish parliament. In spite of the fact that the kingdom of Denmark was in dire need of a west-facing export harbour after 1864, it was no simple task for the Conservative Minister of the Interior, who took a close interest in the upgrading of the Danish infrastructure. The inhabitants of west Jutland could not agree on whether the new harbour should be located in Ribe, Nordby, Hjerting, Ringkøbing or even Vigsø, and the cities’ big merchants – who had no interest in developing the region of West Jutland – played them off against each other. Estrup persisted, however, and with the slogan »harbour brings trade«, he attained on 24 April 1868 the royal assent to his Law on the Construction of a Harbour near Esbjerg.

Esbjerg Havn anlægges)

1874

A sum of 600,000 Rigsdaler was set aside for the construction of the harbour, which was to be ready no later than 1 January 1871. In addition, the harbour was to be connected to the railway network – also a pet project of Estrup – which was to be ready in 1874 at the latest. The railway line was built on time, but the harbour construction slipped behind schedule. It was the Swiss engineer, Louis Carlé, who won the contract to build the harbour. Carlé was a skilled technician, but had a number of personal flaws which delayed the work. In 1872 he was dismissed, and the industry magnate and DFDS’ ship owner, C.F. Tietgen, had to step in with financial donations. Following a chaotic start, the new harbour was officially opened on 15 August 1874 and was completely finished in 1878 – seven years later than planned. For his efforts, Tietgen gained almost a virtual monopoly on traffic between Esbjerg and Great Britain.

1880s

Already in the 1880s work started on expanding the harbour, and in 1886-1889 the fishing port was built. Esbjerg harbour was originally conceived as a dock which was to export agricultural goods from the area of south-west Jutland to Great Britain, but other industries, including fishing, quickly spotted the opportunities afforded by the harbour. Since the 1880s cutters based in Esbjerg had been fishing for cod and haddock, but around the turn of the century the development of fishing in Esbjerg accelerated. The introduction of the anchor seine and the engine-powered cutter meant that fishermen could go after new catches such as plaice, and go to sea for a longer part of the year – revenues rose and the fishing industry grew. In 1901, therefore, a new fishing harbour was opened, which would house the new fleet which in the period 1889 to 1909 had grown from 20 to 100 cutters.

Slæbested Fiskerihavn 1901

Under den tyske besættelse går det godt for fiskeriet.)

1940

During the German occupation, the fishing industry on the North Sea experienced a significant boom, in which the Esbjerg fishermen in particular enjoyed large increases in income. On 9 April 1940 a decree was issued forbidding fishing from the port of Esbjerg, but after a short time, permission was granted to fish within 30 nautical miles of the coast. The occupying power had an interest in letting the fishing industry continue, as any fish that could not be sold in Denmark were sold on to Nazi Germany. These quantities were not insignificant, and a calculation based on records from 1943 shows that out of a total of 58,000 tonnes of fish that were exported from Esbjerg, 56,000 tonnes went to Germany. The occupation’s favourable conditions for the fishing industry were also expressed in the size of the fishing fleet, which in the period from 1939-1945 was increased from 350 to nearly 500.

1943

The favourable situation enjoyed by fishermen caused mixed feelings in Denmark. On the one hand, one could respect the fact that fishermen carried out their work under particularly dangerous circumstances, but on the other hand, one could not ignore that export to the occupying power was especially advantageous. In May 1943, therefore, the resistance movement wrote in the local newspaper Sydvestjylland (South West Jutland) that the fishermen ought to consider holding back a bit with their fishing. Later, however, the tone was not so friendly, and fishermen were threatened with the prospect of sabotage if they continued to earn money on their export. It never came to that, however, and the fishermen of Esbjerg got through the occupation unharmed. One fish exporter remarked later that one ought to “separate the wheat from the chaff”, or in other words, separate the “damage to the national cause from business competition.”

Spanske ryttere i Esbjerg)

Whereas the fishermen came out of the occupation in better shape – albeit with a slightly worse reputation – it was quite a different matter for the traffic harbour, where, due to the global conflict, the number of ships entering the dock was greatly reduced already in 1939. Several shipping businesses had rejected Esbjerg because mines had been laid during World War I, and the occupation of 9 April brought agricultural export to Great Britain to a complete halt. Exports fell away to virtually nothing, and unemployment in Esbjerg rose rapidly. It would take many years before business in the traffic harbour fully recovered.

1960s

The 1960s were booming years for Esbjerg’s fishing for human consumption, and the harbour boasted around 50 fish processing businesses. In 1967 a new auction hall was opened in the fishing harbour, where the old slipway was replaced by modern landing cranes and ice separation equipment. The 1960s were the Golden Age of Esbjerg fishing and the size of the fleet eventually grew to be more than 600 cutters. Together with the industrial fisheries, consumer fishing now employed 3,800 people while a further 5,000 were employed in other businesses indirectly connected to the fishing industry. Fishing thus accounted for one third of Esbjerg’s working population.

Industrial fishing for herring, sand eels, Norway pout etc. for the production of fish meal and fish oil was a follow-on effect of difficulties experienced in the post war years within the consumer fishing industry. Already in 1948 a number of fishing skippers established the Andelssildeoliefabrikken (Herring Oil Cooperative Factory), and the business developed over the following decades. As a result of the large catches of industrial fish (known as ‘trash fish’), the businesses A/S Vestjysk Sildeolie Industri, Farina and in 1960, Fiskemelsfabrikken Vesterhavet (North Sea Fish meal factory) were formed. In 1968 an enormous 500,000 tonnes were landed as opposed to 5,000 tonnes in 1950. Processing work was done in the fish meal plants, causing a characteristic smell, which plagued Esbjerg for decades. In reference to the success of Esbjerg’s industrial fisheries, it became common parlance to say “it smells of money”. In 2000 several of the factories joined forces with the fish meal factory in Thyborøn to form TripleNine Fish Protein.

1965 - 1967

In the 1960s Esbjerg harbour was once again on its feet as Denmark’s fourth largest with an annual turnover of over one million tonnes of freight. The decade was marked by a general modernisation of the old dockyard, in which investment was made in a new 35 tonne crane for heavy lifting and motorised conveyor belts. But the new breakthrough came with the introduction of freight containers which radically improved the efficiency of exports. From 1965-67 a container terminal was established at the port of Esbjerg. The project ended up costing DKK 100 million, of which a large portion was paid by DFDS, which also invested in two new so-called ‘Roll-on/Roll-off’ (Ro-Ro) transport ships, each with a capacity of 152 containers.

Frederik IX i auktionshal A)

2007

In 2007 the production of fish meal in Esbjerg came to an end. Already in 2002 the fish auction was closed, and thus by the end of 2007 fisheries in Esbjerg had virtually disappeared. Since the 1960s consumer fishing and industrial fishing had been the dominant business in Esbjerg Harbour. From the 70s onward, however, the decline took hold. Some of the causes of the stagnation of the fishing industry could be traced to an inability to recruit newcomers and national and international political regulations. From having been Denmark’s biggest fishing harbour with 370 industrial trawlers and 230 anchor seine cutters, the harbour today has just a couple of shrimp cutters. The fishing fleet has moved north, to Skagen, Thyborøn and Hanstholm, which together with Hvide Sande and Hirtshals account for approximately 85% of the catches landed in Danish harbours.

At the same time as fishing was going into decline, the offshore business, which would help to change Esbjerg harbour, was taking off. The once largest fishing harbour in Denmark was now becoming a home port for the Danish oil and gas industry. Maybe the fishing industry was now finished and done with, and many fishermen had returned to life on dry land, found new jobs or enjoyed their retirement, but others chose to seek employment in the new industries that were being established in the port. We can see one good example of this in Esbjerg Vagtskibsselskab A/S, or Esvagt for short. Three citizens of Esbjerg: fishing skipper Ole Andersen, captain of industry Henning Kruse and the chairman of Esbjerg Fishermen’s association, Kent Kirk, established a shipping company in 1981, with the purpose of ensuring security at sea for the new industry in the North Sea. Today Esvagt operates internationally and undertakes other tasks, such as servicing wind turbines. Their ships are known by their characteristic orange-red colour.

Even though fishing disappeared from Esbjerg around the turn of the millennium, it can still call itself a fishing harbour. Although the massive catches and fishing fleet are no longer there, large quantities of fish are still processed to produce fish meal and oil. This may be seen in the businesses connected to both industrial and consumer fishing that make up the harbour front, such as TripleNine, ED&F and Polar Seafood. In addition, there are a couple of shrimp cutters and a number of companies that service the fishing industry, such as Comet Trawl and West Diesel. But there can be no doubt that the port of Esbjerg nowadays functions primarily as a centre for the energy sector, whether it be green or black energy.

Esbjerg fishermen

The exhibition “Denmark’s Incredible Fishing Venture” at the Fisheries and Maritime Museum shows a large number of portraits of former Esbjerg fishermen. The fishermen represent a now-finished epoch with Esbjerg as a fishing town, which with this exhibition is portrayed in the museum.
The portraits are supplemented in the exhibition with the subjects’ own narratives, as 76 former fishing skippers have come to the museum to be interviewed, and in this way contributed their own stories of life as fishermen to the exhibition. In addition, the exhibition includes films, pictures and a digital presentation, in which the visitor is given the historical background in the fishermen’s own words.

Read more about the exhibition here

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