At the sea with coastal fishermen

The five-year stretch of the Local Fishing project has given us tangible proof of how many pieces must fit together before we can reach the results we are after. When we began the project back in 2015, many told us how our goal – to bring cyprinids to Finnish dinner tables – had been attempted many times before, and how it just cannot be done. So no use trying. Sustainable fish stock management of cyprinids could, however, be a cost-efficient measure for removing nutrients from water environments, and if all of the fish that is caught is used for human consumption, this traditional livelihood would represent the circular economy at its best.

When, more than five years ago, we swapped Helsinki for a pier’s end in the archipelago, hoping to learn of the everyday lives of the coastal fishermen, we felt we were going one hundred years back in time. I can’t help but admire how openly they received us, a bunch of extremely urban Baltic Sea protectors, as we burst in on them at the local tavern, showcasing our project with its weird rules, or ambled around at the end of the pier, studying the facilities of the fishing harbour.  It was nevertheless clear from the start that the one thing that unites a marine biologist from the city and a fisherman from the coast is love for the archipelago and the Sea.  Fishermen see and experience the sea close at hand, every day, and from a different perspective than us, who spend our working days promoting marine protection. The changes in the sea are visible, and if catches become smaller, the fishermen will feel the change in their wallets in a very concrete way. If they were suspicious towards us, we did not notice it, as our cooperation made it easy to focus on our common goal: the cyprinids, and taking them towards Finnish dining tables.

The road that takes the bream to the plate can be understood much more profoundly when we know the people behind every piece of the value chain. We did in fact get to know the bottlenecks of the value chain very well when we were making calls around the country to find potential fish mince producers, or preparing to buy, if necessary, thousands of kilograms of fish mince for intermediate storage arranged by the Foundation so as to save small producers from being in trouble in case the consumer market demand market would not materialize in line with estimates. Even though the Foundation did not in the end need to start buying fish, and we were also able to find a last-minute missing link for the Local Fishing project value chain before the fish patties were launched to the stores, the road that the cyprinids caught in our coastal waters need to travel to reach the fish counters is still very much winding.

When we observe large phenomena or statistics, it is often too easy to forget the people behind them. If, for example, a seal decides to enjoy the fish buffet found at a fyke net, the losses are felt directly and personally at the fisherman’s own dining table, and it’s easy to understand that in such cases sympathies do not lie with the round-eyed mammal, even if the incident could statistically be seen from a different angle.  To be able to understand the practical challenges better, the Local Fishing project also asked the fishermen directly for their views on the problems faced by their livelihood and its value chains, and for any suggestions for solutions.

We learned, among other things, that contacts between stakeholders in most cases do not reach beyond one step in the value chain, and once fishermen have sold their catch, they do not know the path the fish will take after that. Also, retail product managers or fish patty manufacturers do not always realize that for their shelfs to be full also the following year, the fishermen and the first processing tier, e.g. fish mince producers, need to know of future raw material needs months beforehand to be able to meet the demand! There is indeed plenty of room for improving the cooperation between stakeholders.

The five-year journey of the Local Fishing Project has taken us from rocking fishing boats to gala dinners with award ceremonies, and from meeting rooms to fish patty production lines. We have reached our goals and learned a lot, but there is still so much more to do for the success story of the cyprinids to continue. I am proud to be able to tell my children at dinner that I really know where our food comes from, that I have met every fisherman, and visited all the traps where the bream for our lunch patties was caught.

The everyday work of the fishermen ensures we can enjoy domestic fish at our dinner tables: this is why solutions built for the local fishing value chain should be extended all the way to the grassroots level, so that cyprinids can be found in our stores also in the future!

Miina Mäki
Project Manager, Clean Baltic Sea projects
John Nurminen Foundation

Miina Mäki, M.Sc., joined the Foundation’s Baltic Sea Rescue Forces in 2007, when she worked e.g. wastewater discharges from St. Petersburg and Poland in the Foundation’s first phosphorus removal projects. These projects required not only perseverance, patience and negotiation skills – but also a enduring nose. As her most recent projects, Miina has piloted a five-year Local Fishing Project (2014–2019) and a three-year EU-funded SEABASED project ending in spring 2021, which has looked at ways to alleviate the nutrient load within the Baltic Sea. In addition to her work as a project manager, this foundation’s Baltic Sea expert participates in a variety of ways in the planning and implementation of the Foundation’s communication and environmental education content.

Miina, who has been trained as a marine and environmental biologist, knows the secrets of the sea above and below the surface. As part of her training as an underwater researcher, she has also dived below the surface. The diverse Miina’s graphic and literary skills have aroused admiration across the board. In her free time, Miina goes out and hikes in nature and delights her friends with pictures and remarks from all seasons, and cherishes her diverse selection of plants both at home and in the cottage garden. As an evening activity, she has also written the Snufkin’s Fish Book, which will be published in March 2021 (WSOY).

Kalastajien matkassa, kalastaja kokee verkkoja veneestä
Kuva: Miina Mäki