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July 16, 2013

Quo vadis, Baltic herring?

BY: Hanna Paulomäki




Some days ago I took part in Oceana’s coastal expedition on the Finnish side of Quark, collecting information about the underwater world in the area with a video robot and scuba dives. We happened to pass by a small harbor just as two medium size trawlers were landing herring on to two big trucks. It was clear that the catches were going to a close-by mink food factory.

Herring is the most important species for the fishermen in Finland, even though human consumption of this fish has dropped in 2000s. Nowadays, most of the catches are used for mink and fish meal. In 2009 for instance, Finns ate 5 945 tons of herring, while 48 000 tons were sold for mink meal. The total annual quota for the Baltic herring this year in Finland is 106 897 tons. The traditional cuisine in Nordic countries has a number of recipes for herring including marinated, pickled, fermented, smoked and a number of other versions.

So, why is there less herring on my plate? Why are minks fed with this traditional delicacy while I am left without? One reason is the high concentrations of dioxins in these fish, which has scared some consumers away. Though, critical voices claim that we could eat herring safely over 5 times more than what is consumed now. Consumers have also begun to favor farmed salmon and canned tuna over herring. The former of which in particular is also known for its concentrations of harmful substances, including traces of antibiotics.

Another point is that when fishing for human consumption, ships normally land the fish more often in order to ensure freshness. For mink meal, the fish can be stored in the boat for much longer. It is worth noting that fishermen do get higher prices for fish sold for human consumption than those destined for mink farms.

As the herring quota in the Baltic Sea has declined over the past few years, Finnish ownership of boats targeting this species has followed suit.  Fishermen from Estonia and Sweden now own more than half of the larger boats (which can stay at sea for 2-3 days) and are using them to fish the Finnish quota.  This has decreased the number of boats fishing for herring for human consumption – which we need, if we want to see more on our plates. 

Smaller scale fishing – artisanal fishing – holds many benefits. Besides being able to provide high quality herring to consumers it is also less harmful to the environment. While herring is mostly mid-water trawled, in the northern parts of the Baltic Sea, like in the Quark, it is also bottom trawled. What is disturbing is that trawling takes place inside marine protected areas. In the Quark, Oceana wants to enlarge the existing protected areas by combining the small ones together and having better management of the areas, including restrictions for fisheries.