Traditional sein fishing is revitalising whitefish populations in Koitajoki

Posted: 21st November 2023

Photo: Antoine Scherer

Koitajoki is the only river in Finland where the ancient fishery practice of river seining is still practiced. This World Fisheries Day, Irma and Reino, two of the few remaining practitioners of this endangered tradition, share their story of a changing river and the action they took to restore its depleted whitefish stocks.  

Situated on the Finnish-Russian border, the Koitajoki cross-border river system is known for its unique whitefish population (Coregonus lavaretus), one of the few naturally breeding stocks in Finland. For generations, residents have employed a distinctive method called river seining to catch this special fish, reflecting a longstanding tradition along the Koitajoki banks. 

River seining is a traditional subsistence fishing method that involves using a seine net, a large fishing net that is typically weighted at the bottom and has floats at the top, allowing it to form a vertical wall in the water. The net is deployed in the water, and then the two ends are pulled together to encircle a school of fish. This method carries rich cultural heritage and seasonal knowledge.  

It is a seasonal fishery, practiced exclusively during the whitefish spawning period, which occurs in the autumn. Irma Kontturi, a local seiner born in the 1940s, reminisces that in her youth, the number of seiners was so plentiful that one had to wait for their turn. As one group finished pulling the seine, another would start. The whitefish stocks were abundant at that time, and Irma reflects, “There were a lot of fish in Koitajoki. It felt like a miracle that they kept coming back.” Seining was a communal practice, and fish were distributed to people in nearby villages using bicycles. 

Seining is an ancient fishing method. The oldest known net dates back to 8300 BC, and was made of willow. Photo: Antoine Scherer.

Since the 1950s, the Koitajoki river system has undergone significant transformations, due to hydropower construction, peatland ditching for forestry purposes, and extensive forest clear-cuts. However, it is the peat extraction activities since the 1970s that have had the most pronounced and deteriorating impact. Irma notes, “The river once had a sandy bottom. But it certainly wasn’t sandy once peat started to be released from the industrial peat extraction fields.” Discharges from peat extraction led to the near-complete disappearance of the endemic whitefish population in Koitajoki. 

The authorities reacted to the alarming whitefish decline by completely banning the practice of river seining. “We read that there were very few fish in the river and that the stocks were declining in the local newspaper” recalls Irma. “Obviously the stocks were declining because the spawning sites had become muddy, and no one was pulling their seines. People kept saying that it would never be possible to pull seines in the river and catch whitefish again. But I said: ‘Oh yes, seining will be possible again, but there won’t be anyone left who knows how to do it…” 

The local people knew that it was not the seining that was threatening the whitefish stocks, but the peat extraction. Reino Piitulainen, another local seiner, decided to take action: “I decided to call the local administration, and as a result, the authorities came to the river, and we pulled a seine together. The seine was so full of peat that landing it on the shore became impossible. At that moment, we all understood why spawning had been unsuccessful. I argued that we should be allowed to continue our river seining practice since whitefish were on the brink of disappearing. Initially, the authorities thought it made no sense to increase fishing when there were almost no fish left. However, I insisted and told them: We used to have good fish stocks. Due to the ban, we have not been able to pull any seines. Whitefish swim close to the river bottom, but now there is just peat mud everywhere. Our seines would actually remove that peat if we could carry on with our practice.” 

River seining has become an endangered practice in Finland. Photo: Antoine Scherer.

Because of Reino’s perseverance, the authorities gave the local seiners a special permit to continue their traditional practice. “Little by little it started to change. Every year, we pulled our seine at the same spot. In more recent years there hasn’t been much mud on our site. We kept pulling the seine and the bottom became cleaner. The seining was helping the river. It was a mistake by the authorities to ban the practice”, explains Irma.  

Irma’s fear of a diminishing number of seiners is has become a reality. Today, it is only Reino who actively keeps practicing the river seining. “I wish that this practice will be continued and preserved for future generations”, says Reino.   

Snowchange Cooperative, a local non-profit and the lead partner on the Koitajoki Watershed restoration project, intends to respond to Reino’s hopes. As part of the ELSP-funded project, two young professional fishers from the region, Karoliina Lehtimäki and Lauri Hämäläinen, have been learning the seining traditions from Reino, and made a completely new river seine in his guidance. For generations, people in the Koitajoki area have made their own seines, something which has now become a vanishing skill.  

Karoliina reflects on her experience: “I feel privileged to have had the chance to experience such a unique tradition and learn from Reino, who is the only person actively keeping the river seining practice alive. It was a wonderful experience to get to know Reino, make friends with him, and see that he started trusting that Lauri and I truly want to learn the seining and seine-making practices from him. The skills I have gained throughout the project are also useful in repairing our other fishing gear that we need to take care of between fishing seasons. The seine-making project was an emotional process, and I’m a bit sad that it has ended. However, we still keep in touch with Reino and plan to go seining with him in the years to come.” 

Karoliina, Lauri, and Reino will fish together in years to come. Photo: Antoine Scherer.

The Koitajoki Watershed project extends beyond the ecological restoration of 1000 hectares of degraded peatlands; it includes a revitalization of traditional knowledge, which in turn guides the restoration work. This holistic approach has ushered in a transformative dynamic, where peatland restoration, river seining practices, and the meticulous rehabilitation of spawning areas all contribute to the river’s recovery. The improved river conditions provide local people with the means to continue their sustainable traditions.  

Reino, reflecting on the changes, states, “Peat has changed a lot of things here. I trust nature to address some of the peat issues, but if there’s more and more discharge, I don’t think nature has enough strength to cope. Soon, this river might just become a mud stream.” To avert this scenario, it is crucial that river seining, in tandem with large-scale peatland restoration, continues. The Koitajoki Watershed project stands not only as a beacon of environmental restoration but also as a celebration of cultural resilience and the enduring connection between people and their natural heritage.  

This article was written by Noora Huusari, Snowchange. Her role involves Koitajoki cultural heritage work, rewilding, and coordination of the winter seining fish distribution and sales. To learn more about the Koitajoki Watershed Project, visit their project page

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