Traditional fishing culture in the Torne River’s rapids

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Whitefish is caught on both sides of the river with handheld dipnets called lippo. The border between Finland and Sweden runs down the middle of the river. The fishers on the eastern and western shores of the river know one another, and their mutual cooperation goes back several centuries. Photo: Jaakko Heikkilä.
Traditional fishing culture in the Torne River’s rapids
In the national inventory
Location Tornio, Ylitornio, Lappi
Tags dipnet, fishing, Tornionjoki, whitefish

Practitioners and people who know the tradition well

Fishing in the rapids is one of the most important forms of traditional fishing in the Torne River. Traditional rapids fishing is practised by fishing right holders, i.e. shareholders of joint ownership bodies for jointly-owned fishing water. The fishing right system for the member households formed during the 16th–18th centuries. The joint ownership bodies exist to organise fishing on behalf of their members, manage the fish populations and safeguard the fishing tradition. Every rapids section has its own body of joint owners on both sides of the river, i.e. the border. Fishing is governed by the Agreement between Finland and Sweden Concerning Transboundary Rivers. The rapids include Kukkolankoski, Matkakoski, Vuennonkoski and Isonärä.

Households 1–16 belong to the Kukkolankoski body of joint owners. The fishing rights have been transferred between generations, either through inheritance or land sale. The number of shareholders in Kukkolankoski is approximately 200–300, and roughly 60 of these actively fish. The development at the other rapids also began similarly but progressed along individual paths, like in Matkakoski, which is located in the area belonging to Korpikylä’s body of joint owners.

Currently, approximately 80,000 people live on both sides of the border in the Torne Valley. Even today, the fishing tradition carries features from both countries, although every body of joint owners has developed its own variation. The fishing that takes place at the largest fishing location, Kukkolankoski, resembles the centuries old form the most.

The Torne River, the boundary between Finland and Sweden, is the largest free-flowing water system in Northern Europe. The river is about 522 km in length with a volumetric flow rate of 370 m3/s, and it is also the most important spawning river for salmon (Salmo salar) and anadromous whitefish (Coregonus lavaretus) in the Baltic Sea area. In addition to salmon and whitefish, the river has about 20 other species of fish.

The bodies of joint owners are part of the village communities, which are represented by village associations. A body of joint owners supports the related village association’s activities, and together they organise events, such as whitefish festivals and markets. The main task of the organisation ProSiika is to safeguard the fishing tradition and increase the general public’s awareness regarding the traditional method of whitefish fishing.

ProSiika is also in charge of planning development projects, and the organisation has members from a number of villages on both sides of the river and from the sea area. The organisation received the Environmental Award from Lapland’s Cultural Fund in 2015. The tradition’s safeguarding efforts have been supported in various ways by several organisations and communities, including the EU, the Regional Council of Lapland, the City of Tornio, the Transboundary River Commission, the Museum of Torne Valley, Lapland’s Cultural Fund, the Natural Resources Institute Finland, the Municipality of Ylitornio, the Union for Rural Culture and Education, Lapland University of Applied Sciences, Meän Kukkola ry (entrepreneurs), as well as similar organisations and communities in Sweden.

Practising of the tradition

Whitefish roasted on a wooden skewer is an iconic ‘symbol’ of rapids fishing. This is an unusual cooking method and known mainly in the Torne Valley. Anadromous whitefish is a unique cooking ingredient, created when the fish is in the feeding area in brackish water and migrates to the fresh water river to spawn. Photo: Jaakko Heikkilä.

The centuries long fishing tradition in the lower Torne Valley involves whitefish and salmon fishing with handheld dipnets in the summer, river lamprey fishing in the autumn and burbot fishing in the winter. The traditional form of fishing is practised by the shareholders of the local bodies of joint owners, some of who have rights dating as far back as the 16th century. The shareholders have also allowed non-member village residents to take part in the tradition. A body of joint owners is in charge of organising fishing on behalf of its shareholders, in accordance with the transboundary rivers treaty. Fishing is organised by each individual body according to its own principles, dating back several centuries.

The use of handheld dipnets is a traditional whitefish and salmon fishing method for fishing in the rapids. Called lippo in Finnish, the dipnet is a fishing implement attached to a long pole. The pole is approximately six metres long, the diameter of the bag shaped net is about 60 cm, and the mesh size is 20–40 mm. The dipnet is dragged through water, moving downstream, with the aim of catching fish in the still part of the riverbed, where they stop to rest. Fishers must be familiar with current and the contours of the riverbed. Catching fish requires skill, good equipment and some luck. But there is still a good chance that the fish can avoid the small net in the large stream.

The use of dipnet (lippo) dates back to the 13th and 14th centuries. The dipnet (lippo) consists of a pole, hoop, fork and bag shaped net. They are still handmade, including the nets. The makers of these nets must consider what a suitable structure for each one would be and how different materials behave in water. A dipnet (lippo) must be made as stealthy as possible, and have the strength and size required to catch fish. Previously, only natural materials were used, but these days the net or mesh is made from nylon yarn.

Fishing with these dipnets, dipnetting, takes place from the shore, a piers or bridges (krenkku) constructed of wood, or a boat. Each dipnetting pit has its own name. A krenkku is a pier or a bridge that enables access to a dipnetting pit. Fluctuations in the water level, the pressure and vibrations caused by the flow of water, and changing seasons mean that these constructions must be taken down and rebuilt several times during a fishing season. Weirs, bridges and piers are still being built by voluntary fishers using the salmon weir construction technique for rapids that dates to the 16th century.

Dipnetting (Lippo fishing) is organised separately for each rapids section by the local body of joint owners. In Kukkolankoski, fishing is organised in two different ways, depending on the amount of fish caught. In early summer, the shareholders may fish for salmon and a small number of whitefish freely. During this season, people new to this fishing method and non-members may practise using lippos with permission from the respective body. In late July and August, when more whitefish may be fished, the system of 24/7 turns is implemented. The turns to dipnetting, as well as the catch, are divided between the shareholders, based on share size.

Winter-time fishing also brings fish to the villagers’ tables. Traditional burbot soup is a delicacy. Photo: Jaakko Heikkilä.

The households in Kukkola have been divided into two groups: the lippo fishing days of those with high and low taxes. The catch is still divided every day at 6 pm at the rapids field, bringing the villagers and visitors together. First, the dipnetter (lippo fisher) receives his fish. Then the households whose turn it was to fish get their whitefish. Finally, the rest of the catch is divided between all the households based on their shares, using an ancient numeric system. In this system, whitefish as similar in size as possible are divided into household piles and then a lot is drawn to determine their owners. As the result from this numeric division system, the amount of fish that the shareholders receive is dependent on the size of their share, making the size distribution equal among the shareholders. The numeric division makes the system fair and easy to use in practice without scales.

The traditional landscapes of the rapids fields consist of constructions and buildings made for fishing. These constructions and facilities were needed and are still used as accommodation for dipnetters (lippo fishers), for cooking and as storage for fish and fishing equipment. In Kukkolankoski, the shared buildings include a fish storage facility (kalapuohi), a cooking hut (paistokota) for both cooking and sleeping, and warehouses for storing equipment.

Cuisine is also part of this living fishing tradition. The traditional cuisine includes skewer-roasted whitefish, whitefish soup, whitefish roe and salted whitefish. Raw-pickled whitefish in its simplicity is still enjoyed by many today. A cooking hut is well-suited for preparing skewer-roasted whitefish and whitefish soup. The area’s anadromous whitefish are globally unique, travelling from their feeding area at the sea to spawn in fresh water.

Traditional fishing and fish dishes have been an important source of income and sustenance for the village communities. Porina, or small talk, revolving around fish creates a natural base for social interaction, be it positive or negative. Social life also includes various old traditions, such as the whitefish festival held at the end of July to celebrate the migration of the fish.

The background and history of the tradition

According to Kustaa Vilkuna, from an ethnographic perspective dipnetting (lippo fishing) is the most primitive method of catching fish. It was based on the fishers’ knowledge of where the fish like to rest and how they migrate. The fishers have always known their rapids well, but have also searched for new places to dipnetting fish. The oldest locations, however, have been in use for a long time. The permanent settlements in the Torne Valley and the foundation of the Finnish-speaking culture date back to the Early Middle Ages and are the result of the population migrating to the area mainly from the regions of Satakunta and Häme. Cultural links tying Satakunta and Westrobothnia together include the similar types of dipnet (lippo) used in these two regions.

The creation of the settlements along the Torne River is closely connected to the fishing and hunting culture. The dipnet (Lippo) was created for the needs of the ancient fishers and hunters. The Torne dipnet (lippo) is a Medieval relic from the 13th–14th centuries, but it remains in use. Dipnetting may have existed even before this, but the current dipnetting fishing culture can only be traced so far. The dipnet (Lippo) is, therefore, a very old fishing tool. It has remained mostly unchanged over the centuries. Historically, dipnets (lippos) were also used in other rivers, but the dipnetting fishing culture has continued uninterrupted until modern times especially well in the Torne Valley. The residents of the villages on the shores of Torne have been in close contact with each other, and originally they also used the same type of dipnets (lippos).

Salmon weirs are part of the ancient building tradition in the river. The first known weirs were built in the Torne in the 16th and early 17th centuries. Nowadays, large salmon weirs are no longer being constructed. However, the salmon weir-building technique is still alive in bridges and walkaways, (krenkkus), constructed for dipnetting. The hand-building technique for piers and bridges (krenkkus) requires special skills and knowledge about the behaviour of the flow. The technique was developed on nature’s terms and illustrates the life of primitive peoples. Only natural materials were used to build these complicated-looking constructions, and all the parts of the weirs had their unique purposes.

The area’s hunting culture has also been influenced by the border that runs in the river. For example in Kukkola, the dipnetting (lippo fishing) turns change at the same time in the evenings on both sides of the river during the turn-taking period. Although the border runs in the river, in practice Kukkola and Matkakoski had the same local time on both shores all through the 19th century.

Today, the tradition of dividing the catch is still reminiscent of the ancient way of life by the rapids of the Torne River, in addition to the other traditions related to dipnetting (lippo fishing). For quite a while now, the division has been done according to share size. This means that the amount of fish given to a farm depends on the farm’s size. The fact that farms founded after 1773 were typically no longer included in the catch sharing indicates that the custom of dividing the whitefish became established early.

The rapids field is a gathering place where, according to the local custom, the daily topics revolve around fish and the water level. The fishers’ old storehouses, the cooking hut (paistokota) and fish storage (kalapuohi) buildings are part of the protected heritage landscape of the rapids area. Photo: Jaakko Heikkilä.

In Kukkola, three different lot-drawing methods are used to divide the fish. According to Kustaa Vilkuna (1940), the lot-drawing and other methods by these rapids date a long way back. For example, a similar custom of placing a whitefish sideways between piles to draw lots was also used in the Swedish Dalarna for seine fishing. As late as in the early 20th century, a share was tithed to priests. In that case, the division was done slightly differently so that the tithe could be separated from the rest of the catch.

During the fishing season, the fishers whose turn it was to fish would spend their nights and eat in the cooking hut made of logs. The hut is an example of a chimneyless building where people have been able to stay by the fire for longer. The hut has been used to cook whitefish over a fire and make whitefish soup in a large iron kettle. Traditionally in the division of fish, the fisherman was allowed to select a whitefish for cooking in addition to his normal share. After the division, many other people would also use the hut, as children who had been given the leftover fish used the hut to cook their share.

The use of a skewer to cook fish is an extremely old custom. In addition to cooking, skewers are also used to smoke and dry fish in order to preserve it. Roasting fish on a skewer over a open fire, as done in Kukkola, is a quick way to cook it for food, rather than preserving the fish. The skewer-roasted whitefish is particularly common in Kukkolankoski in the Torne Valley. When salt was introduced to the region in the 13th century, it allowed for the preservation of fish for round-the-year use and export, and the modern-day salted whitefish also originates from this period.

Whitefish and salmon festivals related to the customs of the fishing communities are among the oldest known traditional celebrations in Finland. In Kukkolankoski, whitefish festivals are traditionally held to celebrate the migration of these fish, and they remain part of the region’s living cultural heritage. Roasting whitefish on a skewer connects closely to the tradition of the whitefish celebrations. People have come to these celebrations to eat whitefish, typically cooked on a skewer. The division of whitefish every evening is still a well-known ritual that attracts a crowd to the rapids field.

The transmission of the tradition

The shareholder households have always had responsibility for arranging the fishers during the turn-taking period. For the most part, these fishers come from the households whose turn it is to fish, and thus the skill of dipnetting (lippo fishing) is passed on naturally from the older generations to the younger ones. Practising this skill takes place mainly during the early summer, when only a small number of whitefish may be caught. Dipnets (Lippos) are still made by hand at home, and the skill can also be learnt on courses organised for groups. The instructions on how to make dipnets (lippos) have also been documented in digital format.

Volunteers built a new shingle roof for the old fish storage building. The joint ownership bodies of jointly-owned fishing water actively maintain the traditional buildings and environment. Parents transmit know-how to their children. Guidance is necessary when constructing wooden fishing piers and bridges known as krenkkus.

Building these bridges by using an old salmon weir-construction technique is nowadays done by dozens of volunteering fishers and villagers. The dipnetting pits and krenkkus are also documented in digital format. The operations of the bodies of joint owners is active, and these bodies are in charge of organising the fishing. Coordinating volunteer projects, and repairing, building and disassembling the fishing piers (krenkkus) happen annually. The volunteer projects accept participation from people of all ages. The whitefish division tradition is also being passed on to new generations through practical work and digitally documented.

The traditional cuisine is preserved by the shareholders and tourism businesses. Typically, whitefish was roasted on skewers by dipnetters (lippo fishermen), and that is why it is still a masculine element in the traditional cuisine. In summer 2016, lippo fishers on both sides of the border unveiled together a statue of a fisher erected on the rapids field. The statue stands on the Swedish side of the river and illustrates the significance of the dipnetting (lippo fishing) tradition in the area. The shared occasion was intended to highlight the shared culture of these villages across both sides of the border.

Several projects have been conducted in order to maintain and promote the traditions: Kylä kosken äärellä 2003–2006 (‘A village by the rapids’), IsoSiika 2013 (‘Big whitefish’) in cooperation with the Union for Rural Culture and Education, and Tornionlaakson kesäsiika 2016–2018 (‘Torne Valley summer whitefish’). These projects have included the following: working in educational cooperation, organising a youth camp, documenting the traditions with new methods, holding events, encouraging cross-border collaboration, improving awareness about traditional fishing, creating an exhibition at the Fishing Museum, and supporting nature tourism. Members of the village community have also created photography art, books and a documentary about Kukkolankoski. Furthermore, books have been published about the local cuisine on both sides of the border.

The future of the tradition

The whitefish study initiated last year is expected to identify a way to maintain a sustainable whitefish stock. Kukkolankoski has an active body of joint owners with a positive atmosphere that organises the fishing and safeguards the traditions. The community has managed to attract new enthusiastic dipnetters (lippo fishers) willing to get involved. Nature tourism, sustainable development and local food that utilise traditions are becoming more popular. Whitefish has already increased in popularity through nature tourism and the local food trend. A local ingredient turns into tasty dishes with global recipes. The projects, and the Torne Valley summer whitefish scheme in particular, have increased the amount of cooperation between the joint ownership bodies of jointly-owned water areas and other operators.

The community/communities behind this submission

Tornionlaakson kesäsiika -hanke

ProSiika ry

Kukkolan kyläyhdistys

Kukkolankosken osakaskunta

Korpikylän osakaskunta

Tornion kaupunki

Meän Kukkola ry

Bibliography and links to external sources of information

More information on this topic:

Krenkkujen rakennus ja purku Tornionjoella

Lipon tekeminen

Lippoaminen

Siianjakaminen

Varrassiian paistaminen

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