As the sun peaks above the hazed and numbing horizon and the wind whips ice crystals through the air like a sandstorm, a lone figure pushes onward on a desert of ice. The man stops, gets off his skis and brings out a saw. Three hours of arduous work later, he loads the frozen catch of the day onto a sled and starts his return journey.

For hundreds of years people in Finland, as in other nordic countries,have relied upon ufishing, and the annual weather patterns that allow for the harvest of surrounding natural bounty for their survival. The Baltic Sea, with its mixture of fresh and saltwater, supports genetically unique stocks of Cod, Salmon, Northern Pike….the list goes on.

Through this abundance the “skärgårdskultur” emerged. The culture of the people of the Finnish archipelago, from the capital of Helsinki in the south to Vaasa in the north. Over 100,000 small islands scatter this part of the coastline, supporting a large number of communities.

Since I was small I have lived and grown up in one such community, on the island of Kimito. I have always heard stories, even from just 40 years ago, of how my grandmother would skate on the sea in May, and how half the island’s population pulled their living from the sea, in the form of seals and fish. The sharp contrast in between seasons shaped the way of life, with summer being spent preparing for winter.

During winter, chunks of sea ice would be set in shavings in small celers, creating refrigeration on the most remote of fishing camps all through the year. These fishing camps are built as basecamps for longer fishing expeditions carried out according to the natural calendar. Important species such as whitefish and salmon would be caught and smoked in large numbers, to then be shipped into nearby cities.

Yet I have never caught a Baltic Sea Whitefish, seen sea ice past February, or gotten to experience a week at a fishing camp. The towns on neighbouring islands, as on mine, now have more empty houses than inhabited ones, and no-one can catch enough fish to make a living. The culture and traditions that were bred on these islands are all but gone, and the people are disappearing. I will never know what the life of my grandmother and her parents, and their parents before her was like, and I will forever be despondent of that fact.

Industrial scale overfishing by big companies, changing weather patterns and depletion in water quality are all interconnected when it comes to the Baltic Sea, and cause the greatest threats to its well being. In the 80s and 90s big fishing fleets sucked a large percentage of the Cod out of the sea, creating shifts in the ecosystem and depriving small local fishers of their living. At the same time warmer water temperatures have led to a massive algae blooms fueled by enormous amounts of nutrients being washed into the shallow basing every year and climate change. This has led to vast areas of oxygen free water, further perpetuating the problems of locals by making it even harder for marine organisms to survive. The lack of jobs, and the promise of it elsewhere has further fragmented the prevailing communities.

The few remaining year-round inhabitants in the coastal towns are adapting to the changes by trying to create markets for new types of fish, and building tourist attractions such as golf courses and spas. At first glance this is great, but it is the only option available for the people of the Finnish archipelago, and they are paying for their future by abdicating their memories and traditions of the past.

As the man returns home, he unloads the now frozen pile of whitefish, and clears his skis of ice and snow. At long last the house goes dark, and so the frigid night descends.

Viggo Henelius

About Viggo Henelius