News - September 29, 2013

‘I am a pragmatist, not an idealist’

With his strongly held views he can be relied on to keep on igniting the debate on the management of our seas. At the same time, to his friends Han Lindeboom is a very affable person. A portrait of a man who is much bigger than the island where he lives and works.

Biologists sometimes accuse him of being unscientific, animal rights activist Lenie ’t Hart was cross with him, fishers wanted to dump a load of sharks in his garden and the minister wanted to sack him. You could be forgiven for assuming that Han Lindeboom, professor of Marine Ecologist, must be a pretty tough nut. As a matter of fact it was just his fate as spokesman for applied research in the North and the Wadden Seas, stationed on the island of Texel, to fi nd himself in the middle of a vipers’ nest of conflicting interests. At the personal level quite another picture emerges. His colleagues are full of praise for his accessible and inclusive style of leadership. Lindeboom can explain things patiently and has his own clear opinions. But it cannot be denied that as a scientist he is out for a debate, whether in the media, in parliament of during Fisheries Day in the fi shing village of Urk. And he is not afraid to take a controversial stand now and then. In his view, for instance, the seal sanctuary in Pieterburen, a Dutch institution with a high cuddly factor, can be closed down. And he puts fi shers’ hackles up with his wish to ban their trawlers from one quarter of the North Sea. What about the controversial wind turbine parks at sea? Acceptable, he says, because marine life will benefit from them.   

Garden full of sharks
These kinds of views don’t always win you friends. But that is nothing new to Lindeboom. In 1990, agriculture minister Braks even wanted to get rid of him, recalls  Lindeboom. ‘Research by the NIOZ, where I was working at the time, showed that the impact of fisheries on the ecosystem was disastrous. So we advised the government to close large areas of the North Sea to fisheries. I first talked about this on the television programme Vroege Vogels but a mistake was made in the press release. It said I was at the RIVO rather than the NIOZ - and the RIVO is the ministry’s own fisheries institute. So the headlines read, ‘RIVO wants to close quarter of North Sea for fishing’. The minister of agriculture was furious and ordered my superiors to transfer me to another job. But my boss didn’t budge an inch: “A researcher at the NIOZ has the right to make these kinds of statement.” The minister of Science, which the NIOZ comes under, calmed things down and I could keep by job.’

In the same period, fishers wanted to tip a load of sharks into his garden, because Lindeboom has said that the few remaining rays and sharks should be protected. ‘Then I threw them a challenge: you can fill my garden with sharks on condition you catch them within 30 kilometres of Texel. Fisheries spokesman Ben Daalder said, “Of course that’s impossible, Han. You know we’ll get them from the English side.” But I later heard that the Texel fishers saved my day. They thought it would be bad publicity for them if they filled someone’s garden with sharks.’ So his garden was spared and Lindeboom was none the worse for the spat either. ‘To start with you get worked up about something like that, but nowadays strong criticism is water off a duck’s back for me. And I am convinced that we must create protected areas, so I just keep on pushing for them.’

Han Lindeboom (Borne, 1951)

1979 Delta institute, Yerseke

1984 director at Noordzee Rijkswaterstaat

1986 marine institute NIOZ

1990 Proposes closing one quarter of the North Sea to fisheries
2000 Alterra Texel

2006 As vice-chair of Pole Year he gets Prince Willem-Alexander, Princess Maxima and minister Plasterk to the South Pole

2006 director at Imares

2008 professor of Marine Ecology (WU)

2011 medal of honour for Arts and Sciences from HRH Beatrix

PhD on penguin poo
His firm belief in conserving wilderness is Lindeboom’s leitmotiv. This characteristic developed during his PhD research, he says. He did his research on Marion Island, an uninhabited island between South Africa and Antarctica, where he studied the nitrogen cycle (‘meaning that I got my PhD for a study of penguin poo’). ‘That was a formative period for me. There were 16 researchers stationed there among a couple of million penguins. A boat only came by twice a year.’ After six month he was due to go back but he did not have all his data so he had to stay over the winter too. ‘That was a blow. My relationship with my girlfriend ended. In the end I spent one and a half years in the wilderness. The ultimate experience.’ Lindeboom also saw on the island how even small human interventions can change a landscape entirely. ‘In 1949 five cats were released to get rid of the mice on Marion Island. By 1975 there were 3500 wild cats. There used to be a population of nocturnal birds on the island with the unusual habit of digging small burrows in the ground. The cats almost entirely wiped out those birds. On the neighbouring Prince Edward Island the vegetation is completely different and the soil is still full of holes and burrows. You can see that introducing five cats radically changes the ecosystem.’

Lindeboom realizes as well as anyone how much human being are changing this planet. He likes to quote the Dutch Nobel Prize winner Paul Crutzen: ‘We are living in the Anthropocene.’ ‘I was there when he said that in Mexico. I knew what he meant immediately. Humanity has taken over the earth. There is hardly anywhere left on earth where you can’t see our influence. The future depends on choices made by humanity. I don’t have a problem with that in itself, but it does create responsibilities. In some places you have to conserve the original nature. I want my descendants to be able to experience tracts of wilderness too.’

'I am a pragmatist. I propose keeping 75 percent open for fishing'
'I am a pragmatist. I propose keeping 75 percent open for fishing'

Marine protected areas
With two of his descendants Lindeboom had an experience in 2010 which confronted him anew with the fact that even modest human actions can have big consequences for nature. He went diving with his son and daughter off Great Keppel Island, which is part of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Angling is allowed there, in contrast to the ‘no take zone’ around Middle Keppel Island, eight kilometres away. ‘Around Great Keppel we saw hardly any large fish. At Middle Keppel we saw a lot more large rays and other big fish. So you can see that even angling can make an enormous difference!’ A scientific study confirmed this observation. ‘A couple of years ago I would still have said that we should allow selective fishing such as angling in the reserves in the North Sea. Not now.’ According to Lindeboom, the Netherlands should follow the example of Australia, where Lindeboom was on sabbatical this year. ‘For 30 years they just protected the coral reefs and there was no real improvement in the situation. At some point they started all over again and now they have closed 33 percent of the entire area and 20 percent of all the habitat types, including boring looking sandy areas, to all types of fishing. And that seems to work.’

In Lindeboom’s opinion one quarter of the North Sea should be designated a marine protected area. It is not hard to defend such a decision on scientific grounds, he is sure. ‘Greenpeace talks of 40 percent, Australia is going for one third. I think one quarter is enough. And it also means you keep 75 percent of the sea open to fisheries. I am a pragmatist, not an idealist.’ Currently the Netherlands has registered four areas with the EU. This amounts to 17 percent of the North Sea, of which 30 percent is going to be protected. ‘So I don’t think that is enough, but what is far worse is that it has been cut up after fishers and NGOs negotiated about the areas. We didn’t go about it the right way ourselves, though: the areas were proposed at the time by researchers and the government without consulting fishers or NGOs.’

Centralist Wageningen
There is no doubt that the marine reserves are there now largely thanks to Lindeboom. Yet a lack of recognition sent Lindeboom into the arms of Wageningen UR. ‘At the NIOZ I was criticized at the end of the nineteen nineties because I had not published enough in peer-reviewed journals. The Impact II report on the effects of fishing on the North and Irish Seas generated a massive discussion and important decisions by the EU about protected areas. That wasn’t counted at all in the review procedure. I was fed up with the way fundamental research was assessed.’ So in 2000 Lindeboom moved to Alterra and became head of the Texel branch. In 2006 he became scientific director at the new institute Imares. He feels a bit out on a limb within Wageningen UR. ‘You notice that it is further from Wageningen to Texel than the other way round. The board’s thinking is fairly centralist. We had to be called Wageningen Imares.

If I’m in the news and only the word Imares is used, I get it in the neck from Aalt. Wageningen can afford to be a bit prouder of its brands, such as Alterra and Imares.’ In short: he is still quite idiosyncratic. Manager or not, Han Lindeboom wears sandals and a sweater and eats a packed lunch. The photographer arrives just in time for a rain shower. Without hesitation, Lindeboom poses for 15 minutes in the pouring rain. After a whole winter on Marion Island a Dutch rain shower is no big deal.

Photo's: Edo Kooiman