The right to be cold

| 14th January 2020
Winter sein fishermen on Lake Puruvesi, Finland

Winter sein fishermen on Lake Puruvesi, Finland

Hannibal Rhoades
Melting ice and climate collapse threaten Finland's lakes and the ancient, sustainable fishing traditions associated with them.

Any change to the predictability of ice conditions and the way our lakes, rivers and seas freeze has immediate, cascading impacts on our fishing culture and our communities.

Finland is the home of rich fishing cultures that are dependent on proper snow and ice conditions.

The coastal Swedes, Finns and the Indigenous Sámi People have all developed cultures and food systems that, since the Ice Age 10,000 years ago, have relied on their knowledge of ice.

More broadly the Finno-Ugric peoples of northern Russian and west Siberia belong to the same group of traditional societies whose survival in Arctic conditions has required access to and knowledge of ice-based communal fisheries. The world’s oldest fishing net, dated to 8,540BCE, was found in Antrea, Finland (now called Kamennogorsk and located in Russian Karelia).

Great knowledge

Many of these fishing communities have evolved into the present-day professional, small-scale fisheries we see in the boreal region today.

These communities have retained a deep connection with and dependency on the ice and the health of cold northern ecosystems. Any change to the predictability of ice conditions and the way our lakes, rivers and seas freeze has immediate, cascading impacts on our fishing culture, our communities and our income.

My first and oldest memories are of fishing at my family’s cabin on Lake Kuivasjärvi in western Finland and at our relatives’ old farm in Ilomantsi, North Karelia, Finland. We gill-netted northern pike, pikeperch, whitefish, perch, burbot, the occasional eel (when they were still around), bream, roach.

Our first commercial catches were European crayfish, which we sold to local hotels to earn extra money. Fish was eaten in all possible forms. Though I myself I have had a severe food allergy to fish since birth, luckily it has never affected my capacity to fish.

When I grew older, I started to fish out on the ice with very old fishermen of my then home region. I was lucky to learn from Elders like Kalevi Vierikka, Olli Klemola, Simo Alhgren, Kalevi Veko, Martti Välimaa and other old fishermen, many of whom were born in the 1920s and, sadly, are gone today. They were men of great knowledge. With them I learned the trade and some of the traditional knowledge and weather prediction skills they possessed.

Lake Puruvesi

My experiences with these fishermen and their ice-based fisheries led us to establish the Snowchange Cooperative, a Finnish fishing cooperative representing the Kesälahti winter seiners and other fishing communities in North Karelia (Selkie, Jukajoki, Pielisjoki), a region in eastern Finland.

Today we are a 20-year-old cooperative representing and consisting of professional fisherpeople. We are members of Low Impact Fishers of Europe.

Learning from these old men (and women) was like another university degree, gained by spending time on the ice learning directly from nature, lakes and rivers.

Some time in 2005 Snowchange started cooperation with the fishermen of Lake Puruvesi in North Karelia, led then by the late, great fisherman Esa Rahunen.

Lake Puruvesi and the fishing traditions she is home to are special even within Finland. Not only is the Lake a place of immense beauty, the fishermen who draw their livelihood from the lake use an ancient technique called ‘winter seining’.

Methods

In winter seining, a net is dropped into the lake under the ice, then dragged along close to the surface to catch vendace (coregonus albula), a small salmonid schooling fish.

Fishermen still employ traditional knowledge to decide where and when to fish, and to govern their activities and their fish take to ensure the lake and her fish remain healthy.

The tradition of winter sein fishing on Puruvesi was first recorded in written sources in 1300 AD and is currently on the list of Finnish intangible national culture (along with Santa Claus and saunas). The winter sein fishery had probably been sustained on this and other Karelian lakes for many thousands of years prior to these written sources.

To this day, Puruvesi remains at the heart of local livelihoods. Every year, Puruvesi provides us with up to 450 tonnes of vendace.

Most is caught during the winter, but in the summer we use traps and sein on the open water. Many fishermen earn most of their yearly wages, or a large part of them, from the winter seining, as their fathers and grandfathers did before them.  

New normal

In order to protect our sustainable livelihood and the Lake, the Snowchange Cooperative and our fishermen in Puruvesi have worked to gain an EU Geographical Indicator for the unique way we fish and the ecological characteristics of Puruvesi vendace.

But despite these efforts, the impacts of climate change in these northern climes are posing a major threat to the health of the lake and so our fishing culture and livelihoods.

Today extremely warm weather, which has become a new normal and has hit our community and fishery very hard.

According to our traditional knowledge and harvest diaries, in 1968 the ice cover was sufficient for our winter seining to start on 8 November.

By 2012 the first pull of the sein was only possible on 6 February, due to lack of ice. In 2020 we are heading towards a later date again and are still waiting to begin our harvest.

Lost ice

There is no ice, and warm weather destroys the possibility of beginning our ice-based fishery. Our fishermen gather daily at the Kesälahti Fish Base to repair gear and plan, and to look at Lake Puruvesi without the ice we need.

This phenomenon is also affecting the many species that call the lake system home, like the extremely endangered, lake-bound Saimaa ringed seal.

The windows for ice-life, subsistence and survival are narrowing. In the past the ice used to last until mid-May before the spring melt – today we often have to end the seining season at the end of March.

In order to assess the impacts of these changes on the daily lives of local fishers, let me illustrate the loss that we incur daily.

We have lost 6-7 weeks of the seining season, including the Christmas season. If our daily catch during those weeks averaged, as usual, around 300 kgs of vendace, that means tens of thousands of euros have been already lost this season. This is just for the one Snowchange seining crew of three people.

Lost culture

Domestically in Finland there is no insurance or other way of covering these losses for local people living sustainably from the lake and the surrounding lands. But as well as the income we need to live, when the ice stays away we lose something else precious. 

When we lose the ice, we lose our culture. This is true for all traditional communities across the Arctic and boreal.

If it is not practiced, the deep knowledge, wisdom and traditional knowledge that have made these fisheries possible and sustainable are lost rather quickly. Often it is impossible to rebuild these continuums of knowledge that is passed from generation to generation. 

Loss of ice is also a direct existential threat to our lakes and fisheries and associated wildlife. In a century of climate change we need traditional knowledge, in combination with science, more than ever. Without it we cannot fully assess and observe how northern climate change is impacting ecosystems.

Our oral histories and traditional knowledge are considered intangible national culture. If we lose this traditional way of life we are also losing a culture that is of significance to all Finns and all humankind. We are also losing a critical knowledge system for averting, mitigating and surviving climate change.

Taking Action

What can we do? All that is in our power to do.

Naturally, as fishers of the north, we will do all that we can locally to maintain our traditional harvests and will try to adapt to the extent we can.

Recently we wrote to the EU Commission, calling on them to establish a relief fund to address the situation. You can support this action by reading our letter, contacting your MEP, making them aware of our situation and asking them to support the relief fund.

Anyone, in Europe and beyond, can support local small-scale fishers by purchasing fish direct and at its real value, so that our trade will survive the 21st century.

If we cannot earn from our work, we cannot train young fishermen in the trade and again, we lose our culture, knowledge and co-existence with our fish – we lose a traditional and sustainable trade that is not a threat to fish stocks.

The future

Our lake fishery is very different from the stories you hear about the depletion of fish stock at sea by massive industrial operations.

As traditional fishers on these lakes, we protect them from this kind of destruction. We need to expand master-apprenticeships to ensure young people can fish and protect our lakes.

We need to reduce and divert industrial land uses away from lakes, rivers and sea areas to allow the traditional fishing communities time to adapt and come to terms with a changing climate.

Here in the north, when the ice arrives, it sings. By acting now we hope to hear this song long into the future.

This Author

Tero Mustonen is a passionate defender of the traditional worldview and cosmology of his people. He is a Finn, a fisherman and head of the village of Selkie in North Karelia, Finland. He works for the award-winning Snowchange Cooperative, a non-profit organisation based in Finland with members across the Arctic, including the communities of Eastern Sámi, Chukchi, Yukaghir, Sakha, Evenk, Even, Inuit, Inuvialuit, Gwitchin and many more. Tero Mustonen is also a highly regarded climate scientist and is one of the lead authors for Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Actions

  • Watch this short documentary about the winter seiners of Puruvesi.
  • Learn about the Snowchange Landscape Rewilding Programme that is restoring and rewilding large aquatic and boreal ecosystems to be safe havens for fish, birds, and mammals as well as expanding carbon sinks for the planet.
  • Snowchange is working with EU Interreg Project CHERISH to maintain and advance fishing cultural heritage across the continent. Find out more here.

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