Lake Hjälmaren: Fishing for the future
Sweden's sustainable small-scale fishery
Unlike many of his peers, the first vessel Emil Andersson Svanlind boards in the morning is not a fishing boat, but a ferry. It won’t be long before he’s out on the lake, net in hand, but first he has something more important to do: take his young children to school on the mainland. The pike-perch can wait, he says.
"These days, we can rely on fishing, so I get to have a life too. I can be with my family instead of worrying about what the future holds. I can be certain there are enough fish."
Emil, 29, fishes the waters of Hjälmaren, one of Sweden’s largest lakes. He lives with his family at the very heart of the lake, on the island of Vinön. It’s a small place, and on a cool Autumn day, so idyllic that it’s very nearly a cliché. Timbered red houses and golden trees blaze against a muted grey lake and sky.
But the natural beauty isn’t just confined to land. Beneath the tranquil surface of the lake, there is a wild, sustainable bounty to be had: the pike-perch.
More than a decade ago, local fishers joined forces with scientists, conservationists and seafood producers to secure MSC certification. Hjälmaren was the first freshwater fishery anywhere to do so. The fishery has been certified for so long that Emil's only ever known it that way. He can’t see why anyone would fish without regard for the future.
"All fishing should be sustainable. If we can't make it sustainable, we're going to run out of fish. Nobody wins if that happens. Not nature, not us! Unsustainable fishing doesn't lead anywhere. It just ends. There's no future in not being sustainable"
700 years of pike-perch fishing
The lake has been home to 17 generations of pike-perch fishers. Fishing has been an important part of life on the lake since the Middle Ages. The inhabitants of Örebro castle close to Hjälmaren’s western shore feasted on pike-perch and other lake fish almost 700 years ago.
By the 1960s, better gear led to increased catches, and by the late 1990s, the fishery was showing signs of over-exploitation. With their fishery approaching collapse, the fishers knew they had to act but weren’t sure what to do.
Then along came Pelle Nyberg, a charismatic fisheries scientist with an unconventional proposal. He recommended the fishers needed to fish less for a while to catch more. He argued for increases in both the minimum catch size of the pike-perch, and in the minimum mesh size of the nets. This, he told the fishers, would allow more of the pike-perch to spawn before capture, boosting the population size in future. The community were reluctant at first.
"It was a huge and very expensive shift. We had to throw away all our nets and replace them with new ones".
But it wasn’t long until their faith was rewarded. Catches quickly soared to new highs – and stayed there. The recovery was so successful that the authorities granted more fishing licences. And with these successes under their its belt, MSC certification was a natural next step.
A journey of innovation and collaboration
Thirteen years on, the fishery has been recertified twice and has also inspired pike-perch fisheries in the nearby lakes of Mälaren and Vänern to become certified.
For many of the three dozen pike-perch fishers of Lake Hjalmaren, not only has certification opened up access to new markets in Germany, Austria and France, but the sustainability of their catch is a source of pride.
"We’re leaders in sustainable fishing. We were the first lake fishery in the world to get certified. That’s something that can never be taken away from us."
What’s the secret of the fishery’s success? For Johan, it’s been their willingness to collaborate and to try.
"We’re a small-scale fishery. Many of us were scared of certification to begin with. It was all new to us, there were strange terms and different vocabulary. We didn’t know anything, but we knew that buyers wanted sustainably sourced fish, and we knew we needed to do something"
They also knew that they couldn’t do it all, so they came up with an ingenious way to keep the certification process running smoothly: the MSC Kroner. It is a small surcharge on each kilo of pike-perch landed, so they can outsource much of the MSC administration to the SIC, The Swedish Inland Fishermen's Central Association.
"We like to fish, not do paperwork. They take care of that for us” .
Today, the fishery is a model of collaborative management. At the heart of it all is the Hjälmarens Fiskarförbund, the local fishers federation. The HJFF represents the interests of the fishers and provides a single point of entry for other stakeholders. It works closely with regional and national government and has developed an innovative research collaboration with scientists in Stockholm that has seen stock reference points developed, and monitoring of juvenile fish, other bycatch, and bird mortality introduced.
Adapting to a
The result of nearly two decades of improvement has been a stable catch that the fishers feel they can rely on. For Emil, this stability is vital.
"The real benefit of MSC is the space to think long term. You don't just focus on the next month or season, but on the next 5-10 years. If you can't rely on your fishing, there's no point in investing to improve. There's nothing in it for you."
Martin Ogonowski, a scientist at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, agrees. In fact when he began working with the fishers in 2017, it was the stable level of stocks year-on-year that surprised him most of all.
But neither the fishers nor the scientists are resting on their laurels. They’re all too aware that sustainability isn’t a fixed destination but a journey of continual adaptation. There will always be new challenges to overcome to ensure that the health of fish populations, and the livelihoods of fishing families like Emil's, are secured long into the future. For Martin, our changing climate tops that list of concerns.
"If the changes aren’t too intense and don’t come too fast, the pike-perch might be able to adapt. But Lake Hjalmaren is shallow and sensitive. It might be a borderline system."
Emil is also worried, but is finding creative ways to adapt. In the winter months, the lake is frozen so he fishes from a snowmobile instead of a boat. But in recent years, the in-between period – when it’s too frozen for a boat but not frozen enough for a snowmobile – has become longer. He and a few other fishers have been forced to channel their inner superspy and add hovercrafts to their vehicle collections.
An engineer by training, he identifies strongly with fellow Swede Greta Thunberg and sees huge potential in sustainable innovation in his fishery. For starters, he wants to cut down on paper usage by making the logbooks digital and is keenly exploring eco-friendly alternatives to the petrol and diesel engines currently used by the fleet. But he’s not stopping there.
"Come back in five years time and see what we’ve achieved. I think I’m even more passionate about innovation than fishing. Thanks to the changes we’ve made to make our fishery more sustainable, I have the chance to combine them both."