Traditional Sámi Fishing and Processing

Lena Viltok lives in Jokkmokk and she is from a Sámi family who works with duodji (traditional Sámi handicraft), reindeer herding and fishing. Fishing is a traditional Sámi way of life that has existed for a long time. “It is a family business where we work together. We fish in several locations close to the mountains, depending on where our reindeer are at the moment.”

Small boats and fishing nets are being used. The families fish for their own needs, as well as, for sale and processing as a part of the traditional Sámi food culture. When fishing Arctic char the fish is kept cold naturally in the water. This means that it is not necessary to have a fridge nearby.

The Sámi way of living is naturally sustainable. “According to our traditional knowledge, we don’t take more than we need because we are coming back in the coming years. We need land and water also for the future. Our ancestors and elders didn’t overuse the lands and neither do we. Coming generations also need food.” The Sámi follow their reindeer which means that they do stay long by each lake. In that way they also look after the fish stocks, and avoid overfishing.

The traditional Sámi fishing is not that common today as it was before, when Lena grew up. But today the awareness is higher about locally produced food and the healthiness of arctic fish. She also recognizes a growing awareness concerning the living conditions of fish, as people have started to appreciate food that has grown in the wild.

A traditional way of preserving fish is to salt it. Usually the family eats it themselves, but sometimes they also sell the salt fish. Fish can also be smoked after it has been salted, but most of the fish Lena and her family sells is fresh.

The fishing methods vary according to the weather. In the past years, however, the problems caused by climate change have been increasing. In some of the lakes salmon trout is becoming more common because the water is getting warmer. “I read an article, that said that the arctic char might disappear altogether and other species take over, because of the rising temperature in the waters. We can already see changes as we catch more pike and perch.” 

Lena and her family also fish in dammed lakes, and she says that those lakes are getting bigger than normal and have rough shores with big rocks. The lakes are also getting more sensitive to the wind, because of their unnatural shape and large size. There are also floating woods that are ruining the nets and the boats. “The generation before us had to get used to it and so do we. But it means a lot more work.”

There are very few young people who fish professionally in Lena’s area today. One of the reasons might be that the profit is not as big as it used to be, because of the increasing costs. Another reason is probably the hard work fishing entails. The decreasing number of young fishers means that the traditional knowledge about the profession is slowly disappearing. It is also hard to fish in areas where there is no electricity. “We need simple solutions because we are moving so much.” 

The principle in learning traditional Sámi knowledge is that you learn by doing. “You have to be there to learn the places where to find fish, learn their behaviour and how to handle the boat, how to act in different weather conditions and so on. You need to experience it. It is harder today because everything is changing. For example, the weather is unpredictable because of the climate change. We don’t really document our knowledge either, instead, the Sámi culture lies on oral tradition”.

“We have to change the way we live, and start consuming less! If we all had a sustainable mindset, and would save resources for the coming generations, we should be able to live on this planet also in the future. Instead of prioritizing the highest possible profit we should start to think about the long term effects of our actions!”

Blogtext by: Leila Nutti, Project Manager, Strukturum Jokkmokk