In Langscape Magazine Articles

Biocultural Heritage in Fishing Villages in the Far North of Sweden

Joakim Boström, Anna-Märta Henriksson, and Marie Kvarnström

traditional knowledge

Jenny Lundbäck and Joakim Boström fishing at sunrise in the Bothnian Bay. Photo: Roland Stenman, 2016

In the villages of the Kalix archipelago in the far north of Sweden, the community-based organization Kustringen is aiming to conserve local and traditional knowledge, practices, and innovations related to fishing and archipelago life in general. The archipelago lies in the Bothnian Bay, the northernmost part of the Baltic Sea. Learning from our elders and bringing their knowledge to future generations is a lifeline and a great part of the identity of our small communities. New laws and regulations challenge the possibilities of carrying on our valued traditional fishing practices, which are closely linked to our identity and quality of life. If we lose this, part of our soul and our connectedness as communities may be lost. Our struggles to get a degree of local governance have long been neglected by the regional and national authorities. We ask ourselves what it is that makes “scientific” knowledge more accepted and valued than local, traditional knowledge that builds on the communities’ experiences, observations, and practices from our lives in the archipelago’s landscapes for hundreds, even thousands, of years.

traditional knowledge

Map of areas with high and low intensity of by-catches of sea trout as documented by the local Kalix fishers in Kustringen. Kustringen proposes that the fishing prohibition could be lifted in the areas with few sea trout by-catches without affecting the sea trout population.

For the five Kalix villages of Påläng, Ryssbält, Storön, Nyborg, and Ytterbyn, the traditional customs and practices of our ancestors in living from sea and land are still very much part of our lives. In the past, fishing was a must for life in these villages. The fish, together with seal hunting and small-scale farming, provided the means for people to live quite well. The knowledge of the fishers of the past, inherited over many generations, about where and when to fish, how the different fish species moved with the seasons, how to read wind, sea, and ice, and much more was almost inexhaustible.

The knowledge of the fishers of the past, inherited over many generations, about where and when to fish was almost inexhaustible.

Wherever you go in the coastal villages along the Bothnian Bay, you find traces of fishing. Some are historical remnants with a nostalgic or museum status, but many ports, fishing camps, sheds, and boats are still in use today, similar to those used for centuries. Near the fishing villages along the coast, you can often find stone mazes, in the local language called trombolistáns, some of them dating from the thirteenth century. Their use is surrounded by mystery and speculation; maybe they were used in ceremonies to appease weather, winds, fishes, or gods.

While the fishers of the Bothnian Bay were mostly men, the women in the fisher families took care of the catch, an important component of which was herring. They and their children gutted the herring, and later their husbands made hard salted or fermented herring, important food for the winter.

Over the last half-century, the fisher families discovered that roe from the small fish vendace could be sold as a delicacy. The women developed a process for preparing the roe, which had to be cleaned from blood and scales. This was a tricky business — each fish yields only three to five grams of the precious roe. The women realized that one has to flush the roe quickly with a lot of water and then let it dry without damaging the tiny granules. They tested different materials for the holders to dry the roe and eventually found a kind of nylon that had the right structure. The next problem for the women to solve was to determine the best temperature to dry the roe. Those experiments still form the basis for preparing the vendace roe from Kalix today, which is sold at prices of up to 3800 SEK (Swedish kronor) per kilo. Since 2010, Kalix Löjrom, the caviar of Kalix, has been accorded the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status issued by the European Union as a geographical indication of the origin of traditional specialty products; it is the only Swedish product with PDO status. Kalix Löjrom is often served at royal dinners and at the Nobel Prize banquets. The roe preparation is still very much a traditional family business, and it is common to have three generations of family members working together to produce this delicacy.

The roe preparation is still very much a traditional family business, and it is common to have three generations of family members working together to produce this delicacy.

Fishing in the archipelago is still a vital part of life for most people, as is being out in the forests to pick berries and mushrooms or hunt moose or small game. The villages’ fishing waters are not divided between individual owners but shared in community associations. Each fishing rights holder gets to use the different fishing spots according to a system unique to each village, which can be based on auctioning of spots for limited periods or on rotational systems.

traditional knowledge

Brothers Sven and Henning Olofsson from Storön, Kalix, on a seal hunt in the southern part of Bothnian Bay in the 1930s. Photo: Gustaf or Knut Olofsson, 1930s

Two voices summarize what fishing means to people in the villages:

“Fishing gives an incredible sense of freedom. Being out at sea and catching fish that can be gutted, salted, and grilled over the fire brings peace to the soul. We have lived from fish since times immemorial, and the fish are in our genes. Some words that summarize its importance: freedom, joy, friendship, happiness, fatigue. The list can be made long and includes joy, hard work, and sorrow.”

Fishing gives an incredible sense of freedom. Being out at sea and catching fish that can be gutted, salted, and grilled over the fire brings peace to the soul.

“The significance of fishing can, to some extent, be compared to being able to go out and pick berries or mushrooms in the woods, to be able to retrieve resources from nature to the household. It is our culture, our past and present, it is something that gives us identity and togetherness. Being able to fish for the household needs also has an economic aspect, and it is environmentally more sustainable compared to buying fish in the store, which has been transported long distances.”

traditional knowledge

The know-how of when, where, and how to fish in the Kalix archipelago has been transferred from generation to generation. In this photo from the 1950s, Einar and Sven Olofsson have caught so much vendace that they had to skip a day of moose hunting to take care of the catch. Photo: Jan-Olav Innergård, 1950s

In recent decades, new challenges to maintaining our biocultural riches have emerged for fishers in the Kalix archipelago. They are of two kinds: new fishing regulations and the growing number of seals.

In 2006, a Swedish law was enacted that prohibits fishing in Bothnian Bay waters less than three meters deep between April 1st and June 10th and between October 1st and December 31st. The purpose was to protect the sea trout population in the area. Suddenly, fishing was prohibited in large areas where it had been a vital part of the local household economy and way of life for many generations. The traditional artisanal fishing for whitefish, perch, and pike during spring and autumn is now almost extinct, since the prohibition periods coincide with the main traditional fishing periods.

And then in 2009, the European Union introduced a law that bans all selling of fish and fish products from the sea without a professional fishing license. This means that our community members in the Kalix archipelago can no longer sell surplus fish unless we acquire a professional fishing license, a process which is costly, complicated, and uncertain of approval.

Community members in the Kalix archipelago can no longer sell our surplus fish unless we acquire a professional fishing license, a process which is costly, complicated, and uncertain of approval.

The other “new” challenge is the return of the seals. For centuries in the past, seals were an important source of food, pelts, and oil for local communities in Kalix. Even today, there are people from the older generation who can tell stories about seals and seal hunting and share their traditional knowledge about how to use the seal as a valuable resource, and this is very much part of the local intangible biocultural heritage.

During the 1960s, the seal populations in the Baltic Sea declined sharply as a result of contamination by industrial chemicals such as PCBs and DDT. The seals became almost extinct, and in 1974 seal hunting was banned. Over time, the waters of the Baltic Sea became gradually less polluted, and in the 1990s the seal populations started to increase again. Today, there are so many gray seals (Halichoerus grypus) and ringed seals (Pusa hispida) in the Bothnian Bay that traditional fishing with nets is virtually impossible in many areas. The seals gather around our boats as soon as we lower the nets into the water, and they immediately start eating the fish from the nets. The local communities have alerted researchers and politicians that there is an acute problem with the unmanaged seal population. What will happen if the seal populations continue with the same explosive rate of growth? Will there be diseases, famine, or fish stocks that collapse?

traditional knowledge

Axelia Henriksson, the granddaughter of Anna-Märta Henriksson and a new-generation fisher. Photo: Anna-Märta Henriksson, 2014

As a result of the recent challenges, many people in the coastal communities are experiencing a loss of connection with their local landscape and seascape and a loss of quality of life. The knowledge and storytelling around fishing, and the possibility to fish for the household and for parts of the family income, have joined people together for many generations. As a response, fishers in the villages Påläng, Ryssbält, Storön, Nyborg, and Ytterbyn have formed a local association, Kustringen (the Coastal Ring) and started to work together to document local knowledge and seek a dialogue with the local, regional, and national authorities on possibilities for local comanagement of our local fisheries to preserve our biocultural heritage.

The knowledge and storytelling around fishing, and the possibility to fish for the household and for parts of the family income, have joined people together for many generations.

In a World Wildlife Fund-sponsored mapping project by Kustringen, around forty local fishers mapped our collective knowledge about fishing. We provided information on fishing sites, species abundance, seasonality of fishing, and so on based on memory and documentation from the 1950s until the present. We also collected photos and stories related to fishing. One important result is a map of areas where by-catches of sea trout have been frequent and areas where little or no trout have been caught over the years. In the areas having no by-catches of sea trout, we propose that the fishing ban be lifted and that Kustringen be given the mandate to provide data on the status of fish stocks over time. The professional coastal fishers in the area have regional self-management of fishing quotas, in consultation with the Swedish Agency for Marine and Water Management and supported by research done by the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. This could be a useful model for the authorities to consider in development of similar comanagement for the small-scale artisanal and household fishers in the Kalix archipelago.

Government authorities and academics need to learn to meet the local natural resource users as equals, take into account our local and traditional knowledge, and listen to what we have to say.

Kustringen has tried to initiate dialogue with local, regional, and national authorities, but their response has not been very encouraging so far in spite of several meetings held. The members of Kustringen believe that our government authorities and academics need to learn to meet the local natural resource users as equals, take into account our local and traditional knowledge, and listen to what we have to say. They need to realize that laws, paragraphs, statistics, and research are not always the only ways to create long-term sustainable management of biodiversity and ecosystems. What local resource users have to say is not schemes to maximize personal benefits, but knowledge that has enabled people to live and manage their natural resources in a sustainable way for many generations. We continue to organize workshops where government representatives and scientific organizations are invited to meet with the local communities for mutual exchange of knowledge. In spring 2018, Kustringen will invite seal researchers and county administrative board representatives to discuss options to deal with the current problems associated with growing seal populations. Some seal researchers have started to listen to the local fishers, which is a good sign.

Over the years, Kustringen has collaborated with the Swedish Biodiversity Centre at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. Here, a few researchers were mandated by the government to support the continued use of traditional ecological knowledge for the benefit of future generations. Their work is linked to a growing international recognition of the importance of traditional ecological knowledge, and they find Kustringen’s work very valuable.

Some of the villages also have their own community initiatives for dialogue. Every year in July, the village of Storön celebrates the Day of the Fish, and this year Storön’s community center will organize a panel discussion about fishing traditions and the rules that have hampered the use and transfer of local traditional knowledge. The moderator is a well-known Swedish TV journalist, born in the area, and there will be panelists from fishers’ organizations, as well as politicians and researchers.

Local and traditional knowledge should be an important part of life and identity for every society. Passing on such knowledge unites people, land, and sea and makes us feel at home.


Joakim Boström is a navigating officer on an ice-breaker in the Bothnian Bay, chairman of the community-based organization Kustringen, and an active household fisher.

Anna-Märta Henriksson was born and lives on Storön in the Kalix archipelago. She is alderman of Storön and interested in fishing and local culture.

Marie Kvarnström is a biologist at the Swedish Biodiversity Centre, Uppsala.

Joakim, Anna-Märta, and Marie are passionate about passing on local traditional knowledge to future generations.

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Further Reading

Henriksson, A-M. (2011). Säljakt, säljägare, episoder. Retrieved from http://www.storon.se/saljakt.php (In Swedish)

Kvarnström, M., & Boström, J. (2018). Biodiversity, ecosystems, local knowledge and customary use in the Kalix archipelago. In H. Tunón (Ed.), Nordic IPBES-like Assessment of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services in Coastal Ecosystems (pp. 29–61). Case Areas, TemaNord: 2018:532. Copenhagen, Denmark: Nordic Council of Ministers.

Nilsson, P., & Tivell, A. (2011). Ecomapping i Kustringen: Kunskap är makt — Lokal kunskap och lokalt inflytande. Retrieved from https://www.slu.se/globalassets/ew/org/centrb/cbm/dokument/publikationer-cbm/cbm-skriftserie/skrift56.pdf


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