“It’ll never work.”
“It’s been tried before, for over 20 years, it’s pointless to try.”
What very typical Finnish sentiments, and how ungrateful of us in Finland to discourage many positive things and new ideas right from the start. Which makes us all the more pleased, two years later, when the first consumer product made of Finnish cyprinid fish finally swims into the frozen food section in our shops.
There’s a photo at my family’s summer cottage where my grandfather, back from a fishing trip, is sporting a large bream, the size of a plate, in either hand. That photo was taken decades ago, and since then bream has suffered serious inflation. In the Local Fishing Project, we along with many partners have tried to improve the reputation of this tasty fish, and pave its way back to Finnish dinner plates. It’s been an arduous journey fraught with difficulties, but it’s been delightful to see how where there’s a will, there’s a way, and sometimes help comes from where you’d least expert it.
Despite our enthusiasm, getting started was difficult, as we learned right away that fishing is a very emotional subject and an area where conflicts are common, where various interests and prejudices collide, and old wrongdoings leave deep scars. We listened to and took into account numerous opinions, instructions and suggestions, and together with leading experts in fish biology, managed to come up with an operating model and rules to ensure both social and ecological sustainability for the project.
The idea for starting the Local Fishing Project came from a fisherman in the Finnish Archipelago Sea who not only wanted to bring this delicious fish back on Finnish menus but also help us at the Foundation realise the big role that fishing plays in recycling nutrients from the water back onto land. The local fishermen were not familiar with our new way of operating, and they were suspicious to begin with. Things were not made easier when we, a foundation from the capital’s highfalutin quarters suddenly hove into view with a set of rules to follow. Nevertheless, a handful of brave fishermen joined us, and together with them, some local entrepreneurs and Arkea, a food service company from Turku, we began work to make bream into delicious food for schoolchildren and other customers of institutional kitchens.
Now, a couple of years later, once Kesko launched the Saaristolaiskalapihvi (Archipelago fish patty), we can all enjoy it. It’s a fine feeling to genuinely know where the food that we are eating comes from. When you’ve been to see practically all the fishing gear used and taken a peek into the daily lives of the fishermen, you begin to appreciate the food in quite a different way.
The small child in me has sometimes trouble resisting the temptation to cock a snook at all the people who didn’t have faith in us, the entrepreneurs involved or indeed the Finnish cyprinid. On the other hand, any progress we made was always the result of cooperation. In order to further improve the potential of cyprinids or other undervalued Finnish fish, we need even tighter cooperation, better networking of the parties involved and better flow of information – and above have everyone included pull together, without resorting to any of that typical Finnish sense of envy.
In any case, having reached this milestone I can feel genuine pride that despite everything we never gave up beating our heads against the wall. Today we’re having bream from the local shop!
The writer is the project manager for John Nurminen Foundation’s Local Fishing Project