Weir Fished Bergen Anchovy
Bergse Ansjovis
Each spring since at least the 17th century, the weir fishermen of Bergen op Zoom, in the southwestern province of North Brabant, wait expectantly for the moment their fishing season starts. After changes were made to the mouth of the Schelde River around 1530, anchovies came to these coastal waters in the early summer to lay their eggs. That heralded the beginning of a specific way of fishing, using its own particular method of fishing with the help of weirs. The anchovies that swim into the V-shaped weirs sense the vibrations caused by the water streaming past the wooden posts and do not dare to swim between them, so that they are channeled directly to the narrow trap opening at the end of the weir. Wading waist-deep in the water, the weir fishers pull the trawling nets free of the posts to retrieve the trap. 

Placed along the sand banks of the Oosterschelde tidal basin, the weir is a V-shaped fence formed using thin branches of oak approximately four to five meters in length. A weir can be up to a kilometer long, leading into a trap at the deepest point in the water. Weir fishermen originally used pruned branches placed at intervals of 15 to 30 centimeters. At the mouth of the weir, the distance between the posts is three meters, coming closer together as they near the trap. Vibrations in the water frighten the fish into the trap, and the anchovies caught are mainly sold to local restaurants, where they are often served fried in the summer months. 

Historically, the weirs and land where they were located were owned and traded by a handful of fishing families, though conflicts between families and government interventions were common. The fishery was also difficult to regulate due to unpredictable catches from year to year. At the end of the 19th century, weir fishing was opened to the free market, but remained a small-scale industry and cultural heritage. The two remaining weirs still belong to a single fishing family, with only about 60 fishermen still active after World War II. These fishers still catch anchovies following the old tradition. As of 2014, weir fishers were also using this method to catch garfish, mackerel and herring. 

In 1997 the Foundation for the Preservation of Weir Fishing (Stichting Behoud Weervisserij) was formed to protect this method of fishing as cultural heritage. Now it is time to focus attention on the preservation of the Bergen anchovy, as observed populations, mating patterns and catches have fluctuated greatly in the early 21st century. Catch varies from 100 to 1000 kg per season. The Bergen anchovy is still popular for the two months it is in season on local menus, especially the so-called “AAA” menu, highlighting ansjovis, asperges and aardbeien, or anchovies, asparagus and strawberries. 

In 2012 the Foundation for Industrial Heritage (SIEB Stichting Industrieel Erfgoed) in Bergen op Zoom began the Weir Fisheries Project for the restoration of the weirs, developing tourism and training fishermen in weir fishing. Autumn storms, wood rot and winter freezes cause a considerable amount of damage to the weir posts. Maintaining them is time-consuming and intensive, especially considering the extremely short fishing season of just two months of the year. Other reasons for the threat of disappearance include competition from the Mediterranean anchovy and the fact that the anchovies do not regularly return to the area every year.

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