Sweden and Finland are two of the Baltic Sea nations that fish the most herring, or strömming as it is called, north of the Kalmar Strait. They are also the two countries that fish the absolute majority in the Gulf of Bothnia. But attitudes differ when it comes to policy, research and public opinion on this popular fish. In a series of articles, BalticWaters examines the reasons for the difference in views on herring fishing in Finland and Sweden.

Why Swedish and Finnish policies diverge on fisheries management for the Baltic Sea

Finnish political parties have been unanimous in their desire to maintain large-scale herring fishing. They point to the importance of the industry and the fact that a ban on fishing would have “significant socio-economic losses” for the country.
The Finnish consensus contrasts with the political field in Sweden, where several parties are critical of industrial fishing.
As the political debate continues in Sweden as a result of the EU’s quota decision, Finland is silent. BalticWaters has taken a closer look at why.

The European Commission’s proposal to ban targeted fishing in the Gulf of Bothnia, the Central Baltic and the Gulf of Finland did not go down well with politicians in Finland. The Finnish government decided to “actively oppose” a ban on herring, and a unanimous Environment Committee agreed.

“The Environment Committee agrees with the Government that the Commission’s proposal to ban herring fishing is disproportionate and contrary to scientific advice,” says the Environment Committee, chaired by the Finnish Green Party.

“We must of course ensure that there are salmon and herring in the Baltic Sea also in the future. Fishing quotas can be reduced, but this cannot be done in such a way that Finland’s quota becomes zero (…) Neither I nor the Finnish government can accept the current proposal. We must negotiate to get a better proposal for Finland.”

Prime Minister Petteri Orpo told broadcasting service Yle after the Commission’s proposal was published.

This can be contrasted with the Swedish Green Party, which also holds the chairmanship of the Environment and Agriculture Committee in Sweden. Chair Emma Nohrén wrote the following in an opinion piece in Aftonbladet on 17 October after the Commission’s proposal:

“The government must show its cards – is it prepared to push for a total ban on industrial trawling in the Baltic Sea? This is the only measure that in the short term can help reverse the trend in the Baltic Sea, which is otherwise heading for certain death”.

In an interview with Hufvudstadsbladet, Jenni Pitko, the Green chair of the Finnish environment committee, said that the reason for following the Finnish government’s line against the trawling ban was because they want a “long-term and consistent” approach to fisheries policy.

– We want decisions to be based on science, says Jenni.

This was also the reasoning in the Grand Committee of the Finnish Parliament, which also chose to unanimously follow the government’s position. The Grand Committee deals with EU issues on behalf of Parliament and issues opinions that are used to formulate Finland’s position in EU discussions. In their decision, they write that, according to the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), there is no basis for the EU Commission’s proposal to stop targeted fishing for herring and that “the proposal deviates from accepted practice and legal interpretation and can be considered disproportionate”.

– It is important that fishing quotas are based on the best available knowledge. I am pleased that the quotas for Finland were decided on this basis,” said Saara-Sofia Sirén, Member of Parliament and member of the committee, in an email to BalticWaters.

Saara-Sofia belongs to the Finnish National Coalition Party, which has held the post of Prime Minister since June this year. She is also a winner of the Baltic Sea Prize and in 2021 she received the Lasse Wiklöf Prize of SEK 100 000 from the Åland Islands Baltic Sea Fund for being a “persistent spokesperson for the Baltic Sea”. She emphasises in the interview that Finland has “based its vision on science”.

– We all care about sustainable fish stocks, that is the most important starting point, she says.

“Not interpreting the management plan correctly”

But what is the best available knowledge and how are the fish stocks actually doing? As BalticWaters reviewed in part two of this article series, the ICES Baltic Fisheries Assessment Working Group (WGBFAS), which includes Finnish and Swedish scientists, recommended a zero quota for both the Gulf of Bothnia and the Central Baltic Sea. But ICES ultimately chose a different interpretation of the situation in its official recommendations. Mikaela Bergenius Nord, who is a member of the working group, says that there is criticism among scientists about the recommendations and how ICES interprets the multi-annual management plan.

– Especially from Sweden, we have recognised this for several years, that the management plan is not interpreted correctly. Now I think many others are finally starting to understand what it actually says, she says.

Multiannual management plans

Multiannual management plans govern the EU’s common fisheries policy. The multiannual plans cover the most commercially important fish stocks and fishing activities in the EU. Each multiannual plan contains specific objectives for the management of a particular fish stock and may also include conservation rules.

The plans also aim to increase stability and long-term predictability for fishermen.
In addition, since 1 January 2014, multiannual plans must include a maximum sustainable yield target for each stock and a deadline for achieving this target.

The multi-annual plan for the stocks of cod, herring and sprat in the Baltic Sea and the fisheries exploiting these stocks was introduced on 20 July 2016. It replaced the previous management plan for cod in the Baltic Sea from 2007.

Paragraph §4:6 of the multi-annual management plan states that “fishing opportunities shall be established in such a way that there is less than 5 % probability that the spawning stock biomass will fall below Blim”.
Although ICES recommended a continued herring fishery in the Gulf of Bothnia, the same document mentions that there are significant risks to herring stocks even at zero quota.

“The fact that ICES presents two contradictory messages may possibly be due to a compromise between two approaches. On the one hand, the best available scientific basis for the requirements of the management plan. On the other hand, a more politically coloured view that takes into account the expected reactions of the industry and politicians and a different interpretation of the plan. Such rifts have occurred before within ICES”, write Henrik Svedäng and Charles Berkow from the Baltic Sea Centre in an opinion piece in DN.

Why Finland took up the fight in the EU for fisheries

The Commission took note of the risk assessment highlighted by ICES in its document and therefore recommended a ban on directed herring fishing. However, the Commission’s proposal was unexpected and, according to BalticWater’s investigation, what made Finland so strongly and unanimously stand up for the fishing industry. Nils Torvalds, a Finnish Member of the European Parliament with many years of experience in Finnish and European fisheries policy, does not believe that the Commission’s proposal was ever intended to become a reality.

– It’s a bit of politics. They knew they couldn’t end fishing in the Baltic Sea, but they still wanted to come out with a proposal that was close to zero. If they had given in on realistic grounds from the start, less of the blame would have been placed on the member states.

So it was a symbolic proposal?

– It was a proposal to open the discussion. They described the situation as it is and then left the political judgement to the member states so as not to taint themselves.

In both Sweden and Finland, the negotiations in the EU were led by the Christian Democrats, who each have a minister in the posts, Peter Kullgren as Minister for Rural Affairs in Sweden and Sari Essayah as Minister for Agriculture and Forestry in Finland. According to Kullgren, Sweden pushed for a restrictive fisheries policy in the EU negotiations, while Finland took a line in line with the final outcome of the negotiations.

The Christian democrats across the borders

According to a comparison of the Nordic Christian Democratic parties by HBL 2019, the parties in the different countries pursue “largely the same policies with a strong focus on healthcare, elderly care, jobs and security. Environmental initiatives have also found their way into the parties’ key issues.

– Overall, I am very pleased with this responsible solution that is in line with Finland’s objectives. It shows that our advocacy work has been successful, Minister Sari said in a government press release after the EU Council of Ministers’ decision was made public.

However, the results and the established quotas were far from what the scientists in the Baltic Sea Working Group, who every year set out to map the common stocks, recommended. But this is the harsh reality of politics, says Nils Torvalds.

– The fortunate situation that scientists find themselves in is that they don’t have to take social or economic circumstances into account. They can say from their point of view that you should shut down, but that is the researcher’s favourable position in the discussion. But in the political field, you have always had to make practical judgements.

Such practical assessments involve money and jobs, especially when it comes to Finnish fisheries policy.

– Herring is the most economically important fish species in Finnish sea areas. The value of fishermen’s responsible investments should not be cancelled, says Saara-Sofia Sirén.

According to the Finnish Professional Fishermen’s Association, the value of domestic commercial fishing in 2020 was about 47 million euros and the value of aquaculture about 75.8 million euros. However, calculations on the net economic cost of the fishing industry in Finland are difficult to find. As far as Sweden is concerned, the economist Stefan Fölster has stated in his report ‘A vision for Baltic Sea fishing’ that large-scale Swedish fishing is on the whole a negative affair. According to his calculations, Swedish fishing generates net costs of SEK 626 million per year.

At the end of 2021, there were approximately 738 full-time professional fishermen in Finland, of which 420 fished in the sea area and 318 in inland waters.

Voices on inshore fisheries

The Finnish World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has also adopted this positive approach. Since neither Finnish environmental organisations nor researchers are sounding the alarm about the situation, there are few arguments for Finnish politicians to take a more critical view of fishing. Nils Torvalds is aware that the discussion is different in Sweden.

– They are two sides of the same coin, but I do not feel that they are mutually exclusive. There is certainly a tendency towards overfishing, but if you look at how thin the herring is, it shows that there is a lack of food,” he says.

Nils sits in the same corridor as Swedish politicians, but says he has not clashed with them on the fisheries issue. However, he has discussed the importance of coastal fishing.

– We should support coastal fishing as much as possible and have a more fundamental discussion about the circumstances of coastal fishing.

In general, he thinks that there should be more discussion about how fishing in the Baltic Sea works and not just whether fishing should be allowed or not. He highlights the Gulf of Riga as a hopeful example.

– It was heavily polluted and the herring there were extremely unhealthy. 30 years later, the Gulf of Riga has the most prosperous stocks. No fishing has been banned in the Baltic Sea during these years, but some forms of fishing have been banned in the Gulf of Riga, which has helped the situation.

The Nordic Committee for Sustainable Development is in favour of the same approach. After the European Commission announced its position on stopping targeted herring fishing, the sustainability committee proposed to introduce restrictions on industrial trawling instead in an attempt to save small-scale fishing.

We believe that it is better to limit industrial trawling than to introduce a total fishing ban. Industrial trawlers catch fish mainly for animal feed. We want to preserve small-scale commercial fishing so that we can continue to eat herring and continue to benefit tourism and cultural heritage,” says Simon Holmström, former parliamentarian from Åland and member of the Nordic Committee on Sustainability, in a press release.

“Within the Nordic family, we need to take greater action to prevent ecological systems from being jeopardised. The functioning of ecosystems and marine life cannot be contained or delimited by artificial borders, so the Nordic Region should play a significant role in multilateral environmental co-operation. In this case, it is about actively limiting industrial trawling in as much of the Baltic Sea as possible.”

The member’s proposal for more sustainable herring fishing in the Baltic Sea.

Limited quota for human consumption?

Nils Torvalds believes that the herring caught in the Baltic Sea should be used more “carefully”.

– In my childhood we ate herring. We should look at replacing what goes into mink or fox food with something else. Herring is a bit too valuable to be used for that, says Nils Torvalds.

He is not alone in Finnish EU circles in thinking so. Finnish MEP Sirpa Pietikäinen has told YLE that a quota of four to ten per cent of the herring caught today could be considered, as this is the proportion of the total herring catch that currently ends up on the Finnish table. The question quickly arises in Finland as to what fish farms will use for feed if the caught herring is instead used for human consumption.

– Research suggests that some of the feed can be replaced with farmed algae. We should look at what development opportunities there are,” says Torvalds.

But the debate in Finland on fisheries has been virtually silent since the 2024 quotas were set. With a few exceptions:

“The herring fishery and thus the fishing industry in Finland is secured by the EU’s new approach – but is it sustainable in the long term?” writes Tommy Westerlund in an editorial in Hufvudstadsbladet on 26 October.

At the same time, the tone in Sweden is further sharpened, at least in parts of the political field.

‘It is not enough to take small steps in the right direction and hope that things will work out. The Baltic Sea has been squeezed by decades of overfishing and there are now no margins left at all. (…) While waiting for a lawsuit to be processed by the Council of Ministers, the most important immediate measure is to introduce a total ban on Swedish industrial trawling in the entire Baltic Sea”, write the Green Party’s Per Bolund, Rebecka Le Moine and Emma Nohrén in a debate article in DN on 3 November.

So who is right and who is wrong?

We at BalticWaters fully support that science and politics – both within countries and between countries, bump and bruise different views. This is an important part of a functioning democratic and knowledge-based debate. At the same time, we cannot ignore several facts. We know that Baltic cod collapsed in 2019 and that the quota has been 0 since then. We know that the herring quota has fallen from around 300,000 tonnes in the 1980s to a quota of 40,000 tonnes in 2024. We know that the fish are growing more slowly and reaching sexual maturity earlier. We know that ICES has already warned that the herring stock has reached critical levels, which prompted the European Commission to propose a zero quota for all directed herring fishing for 2024, which also has legal support in Article 4.6 of the MAP (Link). Finally, we also know that socio-economic considerations have so far always outweighed the marine environment.

All in all, it may be that the Council of Ministers has made a decision that is contrary to current law and that the Council has not considered the entire ICES advice, but only selected parts – the parts that suit its own priorities and that continue to favour large-scale industrial fishing at the expense of the Baltic Sea environment. We therefore believe that the choice today is between continuing to fish for a little while longer, and then accepting that the fish are gone. Or, that we act today to save the fish and fishing, as well as the environment of the Baltic Sea, for the future.