The fact that welcome parties are organized for fish is rather rare. But that’s how it is with Matjes. In Emden, 40 choirs sing shanties for the virgin fish, and there are also fish festivals in Hamburg, Bremen, Duisburg and Glücksstadt.
However, the biggest party takes place in Scheveningen, the port of The Hague. Every year the first barrel of the “Hollandse Nieuwe”, the new Dutch herring, is auctioned off there for a good cause.
The auction traditionally heralds the start of the new herring year. Since Wednesday, the new Matjes has not only been available in Holland, but also in Germany.
For the Dutch, herring is a very special fish. The old poor man’s meal was one of the pillars for the economic rise of the Dutch in the 17th century, no wonder that herring is still cherished today. This applies in particular to matjes, the luxury class among herring.
Of the 350,000 tons of herring that Dutchmen catch each year, only 25,000 tons are processed into new Dutch herring. A little less than half stays in the Netherlands, the other half is exported to Germany and Belgium. Matjes is now eaten even in China.
The cult has a reason: Only virgin fish are processed, the name “Matjes” comes from the Dutch “Maagdenharing”, which loosely translated means “virgin herring”. The animals must not have formed any sexual organs, only then does the meat have the high fat content of 16 to 28 percent. For comparison: salmon has a maximum of 13 percent.
However, virginity does not mean that they are young animals. Because herring regress their sexual organs. “The herring can become virgin again every year,” says Claus Ubl from the German Fishing Association. The matjes fish are caught in May, June and July and gutted after catching, only the pancreas remains. Their enzymes allow the fresh meat to mature. The herrings are then placed in brine.
While the Dutch celebrate their fish, the Baltic Sea fishermen in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania have no reason to celebrate. Fishing for herring is largely prohibited in the western Baltic Sea. Because the stock is threatened, only 435 tons of herring may be taken out of the sea this year. This is what the EU agriculture ministers decided last year.
Five years ago it was 15,700 tons, three times as much in the GDR era. For comparison: In the North Sea, Germans are allowed to catch a good 41,000 tons, the Dutch quota is even a good 76,000 tons.
The fact that Baltic fishermen are left behind is due to a special feature of the herring. In summer and autumn the fish live in the North Sea – in the Kattegat and Skagerrak, in winter they gather in the Øresund between Denmark and Sweden. From there they swim to the western Baltic Sea to spawn. The Greifswalder Bodden is one of the nurseries.
The problem: Because the Baltic Sea is getting warmer, the herring prefer their journey, and the eggs also mature faster. But the hatched young fish find no food. You need zooplankton. However, this is light-controlled and is not yet there when the little ones need it. “The larvae are starving, the number of adult herring is declining from year to year,” warns the Thünen Institute for Osteefischerei.
The victims are not only seals and porpoises, which feed on Baltic herring, but also Baltic fishermen. Not only are they practically forbidden from catching herring, they are also no longer allowed to catch their second bread fish, the cod. From 1200 ships after the fall of the wall only 200 are left.
In March, the only industrial primary processor of fresh herring, Euro Baltic Fischverarbeitungs GmbH in Sassnitz on the island of Rügen, stopped processing these animals. The factory can process 50,000 tons a year, but in 2021 they only received 29,000 tons.
Claus Ubl knows that fishermen in the Baltic Sea are left with flatfish such as plaice and sprat. But also on the North Sea, catching herring is a matter for deep-sea fishermen, while coastal fishermen prefer shrimp. Or they sow and harvest mussels, the mussel fishermen are also called the “farmers of the sea”.
Scientists give hope that the tide could turn in the future. The Thünen Institute believes that herring stocks in the western Baltic Sea can recover within five to six years. If the catches remain low, sustainable use is then conceivable again.
A cold winter could accelerate recovery. But unfortunately it doesn’t look like that. Climate change is more likely to cause rising temperatures and a premature start for the herring.