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Will the ''Gulden Steur'' from the Dutch Golden Age return?

Updated: Feb 11

Ask the Dutch what they are proud of and you will certainly hear the phrase ''God created the Earth, but the Dutch created the Netherlands.'' A quarter of this water-proud, and sometimes -stricken, country is below sea level and was only made inhabitable due to centuries of ingenious water management. Arts forms another great source of our pride, bolstered by a wealth of painters active in the Golden Age and an abundance of beautiful landscapes. But this pride is not limitless. One aspect (most of us) will brag about less is our rather plain gastronomy, a collection of buttered 'mashities' to foreigners' taste. I can hear you think ''What the F*sh does this have to do with the sturgeon?'', actually, rather much.

Sturgeon fishing in the Middle Ages

As the Rhine, Meuse and Scheldt rivers converge here as major delta, the Netherlands was, until 1952, naturally home to the European sturgeon (Acipenser stureo). To understand its decline and subsequent regional extinction, we have to go around a thousand years back.

Around the year 1.000 A.D., the distribution of fishing rights by feudal lords coincided with start of the phenomenon of overfishing in Europe. Fishing began to play a large role in cities along rivers, on the coast of the North Sea and the Zuiderzee, an inner sea that existed from the late Middle Ages until it was closed off in 1932. As communities in the Rhine delta near the coast started to reclaim land from sea and marshes by building dikes and canalizing rivers, these measures likely caused a severe degradation of the sturgeon's habitat. Another bypass to the Rhine for sturgeons was luckily still provided by the IJsel, a river that branches off the Rhine near Arnhem and which emptied into the Zuiderzee.

Here at the mouth of the IJssel, the heart of the Dutch sturgeon trade emerged in the cities Kampen and Vollenhove. By the late Middle Ages, sturgeons had rapidly declined in Europe and were highly sought after by nobility. Knowing the more money we come across, the more problems we see, Kampen en Vollenhove were not exempted from conflict. In 1461, the Vollehovenaren acquired the right from a bishop to fish in the waters of the Kampenaren, once leading to a violent standoff by the latter (Van Heerde, n.d.). The sturgeon even became part of an iconic folk tale, a so-called 'Kamper Ui'. When a famous knight (or bishop) was about to visit the town, an enormous specimen was caught in the river to honor him. But right at the moment they were about to fillet it, word came around that the guest's visit was postponed due to ill health. Rather than consuming the fish, the townsmen tied a bell around the sturgeon before releasing it back in the IJsel. Likely, they followed the standard practice of tying live sturgeons to a pole in the water when the market was down. But when the knight finally came, there was no trace of the fish. Anxiously, the town improvised an alternative by cooking eggs in butter and mustard sauce. The Kampersteur is still part of local cuisine and the story goes that when you bend over one of the bridges and listen closely, you still hear the ringing of the belled sturgeon...

Disaster struck the Netherlands in 1421 when a strong storm breached dikes all throughout the country. Thousands of people drowned in the St Elisabeth flooding. It was so severe that even the hydrology of the country changed. It triggered a chain reaction that led to the long-term creation of the Biesbosch, a large natural area characterized by tidal currents (and a potential new home for reintroduced sturgeon). The Western part of the Zuiderzee, a brackish water mass, became increasingly salinized as a result of the changed course of rivers, which drove the sturgeon to the Eastern shore and river inlets (Van Heerde, n.d.). A century later, brash fisher fleets from the province of Holland started overfishing near Kampen en Vollenhove. Combined with the decrease of habitat quality, this pressure drove sturgeons populations down by an estimated 80 percent (Van Heerde, n.d.).

Sturgeon in the Golden Age

Although few information is available on the status of the sturgeons in the Zuiderzee, paintings and house names in the Golden Age suggest they were still being caught in the Netherlands, possibly in estuaries on the North Sea. The dominance of the Netherlands as naval power in the Golden Age actually emerged from a near fishing monopoly on herring in the North Sea (Stam, 2015). The fishing industry spurred trade with other countries and domestic population growth. Economic abundance meant that some elites began lavishly spending money to build large mansions in urban city centers, so-called 'Grachtenpanden' . Two of these houses, one in Amsterdam and one in Den Bosch, were named the 'Gulden Steur', meaning gold sturgeon, in the early 17th century. Before the introduction of addresses in the 19th century, houses were recognizable by such emblems. The Rothschild family name, for example, originates from the red shield on their ancestors' home.

With their new-found wealth, the Dutch also started to commission art en masse. Still life paintings emerged as a separate genre. Such paintings wherein objects and animals are meticulously put together not only served to showcase the reach and riches of the Dutch overseas trade and colonial empire, but also to remind people of the beauty in day-to-day things and of the transience in them (Fiore, 2018). Within this genre, fish compositions were a specific sub-genre that a few dozen painters dedicated themselves to. In these paintings we see the sturgeon being prominently pictured among other sea fish. Isaac van Duynen, active in the Hague, painted the sturgeon at least three times in a banquet setting, while Willem Ormea painted the sturgeon twice lying amongst other catch of the day on the Scheveningen beach (Ormea collaborated with landscape artist Isaac Willaerts). Dirck Govertsz, a rather obscure painter from Gorinchem on the river Waal, portrayed the only sturgeon caught in a river next to carp, ducks and a grey heron (Zanderink, 2019). In each painting, you clearly see the golden color where the houses were named after.

A lesser known fact is that artists, from antiquity to modernity, use fish glue from the fishes' swim bladders in many applications, so-called 'isinglass'. The term is derived from 'huizenblaas', the Dutch name for sturgeons' swim bladders. It functions, for example, to as ingredient of gold paint for manuscripts and as adhesive for leather wallpaper. Isinglass is also widely used in food preservation and production, for example to make beer clearer, although its use is declining since the advent of gelatin and change of methods.

Reintroduction in the Netherlands

At the end of the 17th century, strong population growth caused severe overfishing. This trend continued over the course of the following centuries. The last sturgeon in Kampen was caught in in 1821 while sturgeons went fully extinct in the wild in 1952. Just a year after, a major disaster struck the South-West of the Netherlands. A strong storm on the North Sea pushed waters higher and many dikes were overrun, causing the death of 1836 people. In the wake of this national trauma, the government implemented major water safety efforts and built the Delta Works, a series of enormous storm barriers that can close off water bodies. The river mouth of the Rhine at the Haringvliet is now covered Haringvlietdam, a series of seventeen 59-metre wide sluices that balances the river's and sea's water pressure. By regulating the water in- and outflow, the dam provides safety to the Dutch. But it is migratory fish that are caught in the middle of these measures.

Fortunately, a very exciting development is now taking place for people and nature. To allow anadromous fish migration in the Rhine river, the government has partially reopened Haringvlietdam in 2018. Nature organizations Ark Rewilding and WWF are now working to restock the Rhine with the sturgeon. If successful, they will have established the third extant European sturgeon population in the world, after the Gironde river in France where sturgeons persisted and the Elbe river where they are being reintroduced. A team of researchers from Wageningen University and Research is now investigating fish behavior around the Haringvlietdam by attaching radio tags to juvenile sturgeon and radars to buoys. The first results of the study are expected at the end of this year.

Yet, the decision to open the Haringvlietdam did not come easy. Apart from the dozens of millions the measure costs, the increasing salinity of water 'behind' the dam forms a challenge to local farmers and water facilities. On the other hand, a pilot study of Wageningen University and Research indicates that the environmental and societal benefits of the reopening, estimated at 500 million euro annually, could far outweigh the costs. If anything, this case illustrates how challenging the preparation for reintroduction is, but also that we can reap the awards from giving space back to nature.

References UNFINISHED:

Meertens Instituut. (2020). Kamper Steur. ISEBEL. Retrieved from:

Van Heerde, H. (n.d.). Visserij in de 15de en 16de eeuw. Stad Vollenhove. Retrieved from:

Zanderink, R. (2019). De Legendarische Steur. Dutch Cuisine. Retrieved from:

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