Organisation - September 21, 2018

A fisheries biologist without sea legs - Adriaan Rijnsdorp looks back on 38 years of applied research

Tessa Louwerens

Adrian Rijnsdorp said goodbye last week as professor of Sustainable Fisheries Management at Wageningen Marine Research. It was pretty much by chance nearly 40 years ago that he ended up in marine research. ‘My first day on board was ghastly.’

© Tessa Louwerens

Adriaan Rijnsdorp’s father and grandfather both worked in the shipping industry in Rotterdam but he went to Groningen University to study animal ecology, and got particularly interested in the lives of ground beetles and birds. But there weren’t many jobs going in those areas and as chance would have it, in 1980 Rijnsdorp landed a job in Fisheries Biology at the Netherlands Institute for Fisheries Management (RIVO), now merged into Wageningen Marine Research, in Ijmuiden.

‘It wasn’t a conscious choice; I think I could have done something else with equal passion. But I haven’t regretted it for a moment.’

The world of marine ecology was totally new to Rijnsdorp. At first he missed direct experience of the animals in their habitats. ‘You sit on a boat and after half an hour of fishing, everything that has been scraped off the seabed is hauled aboard. But you have no idea how those creatures have lived.’ He learned a lot about this from the fishers. ‘They work with the sea day in day out and have an incredible amount of knowledge. Their observations prompted me to ask new research questions.’

Wind force 9

Rijsdorp has vivid memories of his first trip. ‘I think they wanted to test what this land biologist was made of.’ Off he went towards Irish waters on board the Katwijk 34. ‘The first day was ghastly. We had wind force nine and I threw up every time I stood up.’ He never developed sea legs, even after all these years, but he did come to enjoy sailing. ‘The fresh wind and all the gannets swooping around you.’

Although it wasn’t love at first sight, Rijnsdorp soon became fascinated by the secrets of the sea. ‘The first fisheries biologists started their voyage of discovery at the end of the 19th century and the archive contained a wealth of historical publications. We used computers – just available then – to analyse this data.’ And that is how this applied science job could give him the scientific depth he was looking for. ‘Some colleagues said: “Don’t go thinking you are here to pursue your research ambitions; you are here for the fisheries and the policymakers.” But I was given a lot of freedom and set up my own line of research on the long-term effects of fisheries. I think it’s important as an applied scientist to publish your results in academic journals too.’


He ended up concentrating on plaice. ‘This really is a fascinating topic. Just when you think you’ve got some idea about it, you turn out to be wrong.’ The example he gives is the “plaice playpen” that he came up with: a protected area of 40,000 square kilometres in the North Sea where young plaice can grow up in safety. The idea was that, ultimately, fishers would be able to catch more adult plaice. Everyone was wildly enthusiastic and there were even plans for a statue of Rijnsdorp in the fishing village of Urk. But things didn’t go to plan.

‘We were expecting to improve plaice fishing even more, but then stocks of plaice totally collapsed. We were naïve and overconfident and we thought we knew everything, with our models. Because we hadn’t set it up as an experiment with control groups, it was impossible to evaluate it critically afterwards.’ The statue never went up.

Just when you think you’ve got some idea about plaice, you turn out to be wrong

Emotional powerplay

It was a hard lesson for Rijnsdorp. ‘Something that was introduced with the aim of improving plaice fisheries, got turned into a measure for banning large cotters from certain zones. To me, the main reason it is painful is that it caused the fishers who supported us to lose their fishing grounds. In retrospect, we were not alert enough to the political context.’

This is a context in which fisheries biologists operate which Rijnsdorp has seen change gradually over the past 40 years. ‘In the old days, you only encountered mutinous fishers, who thought our research was nonsense. That relationship has gradually shifted towards one of collaboration. But the world has become much more complex. It is important for a fisheries researcher to understand the political context, to make sure we make decisions on a sound scientific basis and not on the basis of emotional power play.’

He experienced this for himself in January this year, when the European Parliament voted for a total ban on pulse trawler fishing. In recent years, Dutch fisheries have invested millions in this fishing technique, in which flatfish are nudged off the seabed with electric shocks. The voting had taken place before Rijnsdorp and his colleagues had finished their large-scale study of the long-term effects of this fishing technique. In Rijnsdorp’s view, the decision was based primarily on emotions stirred up by the French environmental activist organization Bloom. Just before the vote, Bloom published a pamphlet portraying pulse trawling as a weapon of mass destruction that would transform the sea into a graveyard, and claiming that the shocks left fish with burns. ‘I was shocked to see that an NGO could obtain political support with lies and utter nonsense.’

Political storm

Fisheries biologists need to be very aware of their role and of its limits, says Rijnsdorp. ‘In the 1990s, we knew that fishers were catching more fish than their allotted quotas. But we are not a branch of the fisheries inspectorate, so we didn’t give them away.’ Nevertheless, in order to estimate fish stocks accurately, the researchers did need to know how many fish were really taken from the sea. So in their international reports they collated the data about ‘unreported’ catches from different countries. ‘Everybody knew where it was coming from but the Netherlands was not explicitly named and shamed. As a researcher, you gradually learn from experience how to preserve your scientific integrity, even in the midst of a political storm. And if ministers engage in horse-trading and dish out quotas that are too big, we point out the consequences but we don’t start manning the barricades. We are not the policymakers.’

Own agenda

Rijnsdorp is retiring now but will still be the project leader for the study on the effects of pulse fishing for another year. He also has a personal project. ‘There is a wealth of historical data here. The great thing is that I can now totally set my own research agenda and I no longer have to spend time on all the other stuff that goes with it.’