Snowchange trains young ice fishermen as climate change impacts deepen

An ancient fishing culture

Finland, together with parts of Sweden, Estonia, Norway and NW Russia, is home to a rather unique professional fishing culture – an ice-based fishing industry that operates on freshwater boreal lakes and rivers.

Finnish fishing methods include standing gill nets, fish traps and seining. These practices are connected as part of a long-lasting boreal winter fishing culture that spans all of Siberia, the Fennoscandian North, Greenland and North American boreal and Arctic areas.

The world’s oldest fishing net, found in Finland, highlights the remarkable longevity of these traditions.

Fragments of the 'Antrea net'. Dated to 8540BC and found in Antrea, Karelia. Photo: Wikipedia

A changing climate

Professional fishermen Tero Mustonen and Lauri Hämäläinen from the Finnish Snowchange Cooperative are winter seiners and members of the Kesälahti Fish base on the shores of Lake Puruvesi, a pristine waterbody connected with Saimaa, one of the largest lakes in Europe. Tero and Lauri also fish in smaller waters on Lake Ylinen and the River Jukajoki to the north of Puruvesi.

Tero Mustonen (left) and Lauri Hämäläinen (right) out on the ice of the River Jukajoki, near the village of Selkie, Finland. Photo: Antoine Scherer.

Winter seining is a stable source of income for these fishermen and is usually practiced between December and April. In 2020, however, extremely warm weather has prevented the seining, which requires good ice cover and strength, from starting.

In 1968 the fishery started on 8th November. In 2012, the worst season to date, the first fishing commenced 12th February. In 2020 first harvest may start in first week of March, if the ice allows.

This winter, seining days lost to poor ice conditions have been spent repairing gear, learning traditional knowledge and focusing on gill-netting burbot (lota lota), a February spawner and a seasonal delicacy.

A burbot pulled from beneath the ice of Lake Ylinen. Photo: Antoine Scherer.

Apprentice and Master

In order to help combat the challenges facing northern fisherpeople, in 2019 the local EU FLAG- Fishing Action Group- for Eastern Finland initiated a cost-effective Master-Apprentice programme. Through a 6000 € grant, a pair of young fishermen have been invited to learn the trade over 6-12 months. Lauri applied and together with Tero, in the role of Master fishermen, the pair were accepted into the programme in August 2019.

Lauri and Tero have been fishing together for six months now. Their training has included gill netting and choosing locations for harvests across the seasons, making and mending new nets and seines, summer and autumn seining and fish trapping. Also the preparation of specialised fish dishes, such as burbot and ruffe (Gymnocephalus cernua) soups and smoked fish.

Lauri has been selling fish in the region for Snowchange and also become actively involved in large-scale ecological restoration of trout streams that Snowchange is leading.

A restored trout stream runs clear in the Jukajoki River system. Photo: Snowchange Cooperative.

Lauri has also gained a wealth of international experience, representing Snowchange and Kesälahti at the international 2019 SlowFish Festival in Genoa, Italy. In 2020 his education will continue. This summer Lauri will captain a Snowchange-owned vessel on Lake Puruvesi for tourists. He will also travel to Western Siberia, Russia for the 2020 Festival of Northern Fishing Traditions with the linguistically-related Khanty people on the River Ob.

Working with nature

In the context of climate change, low fish prices and having received previous formal education to be an Environmental Engineer, Lauri's choice to become a young, professional fisherman in Eastern Finland is a significant one. He is maintaining and advancing an age-old culture that was recently included on the list of Finnish Intangible National Culture.

When asked why he chose this line of work, Lauri replies, with characteristic straightforwardness:

“I like nature and working in nature.”
Seiners from the Kesälahti fishing team pull in their nets of Lake Puruvesi. Photo: Hannibal Rhoades.

Tero and Lauri's story as partners in the Master-Apprentice programme is a great example of how the injection of relatively small amounts of money and resources can have a profound impact in Europe's small-scale fisheries.

Tero and Lauri's partnership alone will create at least one permanent job, maintain traditional knowledge and culture and bring self-esteem and continuity to the fishermen of Kesälahti at a time when fisherpeople do not enjoy a high standing in Finnish society.

Apprenticeships and other such initiatives are of high relevance to regional fishing plans, economic and ecological policies across Europe. From the Mediterranean to the Arctic, small-scale fisheries tend to be ecologically sustainable, connected with local families and communities and contribute to the food security and environmental monitoring of freshwater and marine ecosystems. Supporting them is a win-win.

Fishing the future

Lauri pulls in the nets as the sun sets over the River Jukajoki. Photo: Antoine Scherer.

Lauri has immersed himself in these experiences, learning how important local fisheries are for the overall well-being of communities. He has brought in daily fresh catches, become part of the passing of oral histories and lore, observed changing environmental and weather conditions and re-learnt ancient skills and practices. In a century of immense cultural losses, this story and others like it provides a powerful counter-narrative to the homogenising effects of globalisation.

Branching into sustainable tourism, as Lauri will this summer, demonstrates the multiple ways that fishing culture can adapt and re-emerge in this era of profound change.

This interactive story was produced by Hannibal Rhoades for the Snowchange Cooperative.

Find out more about Snowchange's work here:

Created By
Hal Rhoades