Easily the most interesting town on the Noordoostpolder is Urk, a burgeoning harbour, shipyard and fishing port, where a series of narrow lanes – and tiny terraced houses – indicate the extent of the old village before it was topped and tailed by new housing estates. Before it became part of the mainland, centuries of hardship and isolation had bred a tight-knit island community, one that had a distinctive dialect and its own version of the national costume. Most of Urk’s individuality may have gone, but its earlier independence does still resonate, rooted in a fishing industry that marks it out from the surrounding agricultural communities. One Urk peculiarity that remains today is its addresses: traditionally the village was divided into areas called “Wijks”, though nowadays the streets also have names – the tourist office, therefore, is at both Raadhuisstraat 2 and/or Wijk 2-2.
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The damming of the Zuider Zee posed special problems for the deep-sea fishermen of Urk and it’s hardly surprising that they opposed the IJsselmeer scheme from the beginning. Some villagers feared that the disappearance of their island enclave would spell the end of their distinctive way of life (by and large they were right), but it was the fishermen who were most annoyed by the loss of direct access to the North Sea. After futile negotiations at national level, the fishermen of Urk decided to take matters into their own hands: the larger ships of the fleet were sent north to fish from ports above the line of the Afsluitdijk, particularly Delfzijl, and transport was organized to transfer the catch straight back for sale at the Urk fish auctions. In the meantime, other fishermen decided to continue to fish locally and adapt to the freshwater species of the IJsselmeer. These were not comfortable changes for the islanders and the whole situation deteriorated after the Dutch government passed new legislation banning trawling in the IJsselmeer in 1970. When the inspectors arrived in Urk to enforce the ban, years of resentment exploded in ugly scenes of dockside violence and the government moved fast to sweeten the pill by offering substantial subsidies to compensate those fishermen affected. This arrangement continues today and the focus of conflict has moved to the attempt to impose EU quotas on the catch of the deep-sea fleet.