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Finland: Fishing restrictions may lead to the disappearance of an ancestral way of life

20 June 2023

Deatnu, also known as Teno in Finnish and Tana in Norwegian, is one of the world’s most important spawning rivers for Atlantic salmon. About 30 different Atlantic salmon populations live in the Deatnu watercourse. Salmon fishing is also the foundation of the river Sámi culture and identity, particularly for the Sámi inhabitants of Deatnu valley. Salmon is one of the main reasons why the indigenous Sámi people inhabited the area in the first place, and it is one of the key sources of food in this richly biodiverse Arctic region.  

The Sámi way of living, however, is under serious threat. Numerous fishing restrictions imposed during the past few years have targeted Deatnu and its waters. Deatnu salmon stocks have been protected and fishing has been regulated under fishing agreements established between Finland and Norway since 1873. The current Teno fishing agreement between Finland and Norway has been in force since 2017.  

There has been a total ban on salmon fishing in the Deatnu River since 2021. According to the Finnish Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, the status of Atlantic salmon stocks in Deatnu did not improve during the summer of 2022. There are no positive signs that the numbers of fish migrating upstream will increase in the near future. The Finnish parliament passed an act in March 2023 on the temporary prohibition of salmon fishing in the Teno water body. The act was adopted in May 2023. Other restrictions have been introduced into the Fishing Act in Finland, which concerns fishing in the headwaters of three northern municipalities. 

‘Youth should have the possibility to learn traditional salmon fishing. There is a risk that they will be excluded from our traditions.’

Many Sámi people believe that the governments of Finland and Norway are deliberately compromising the livelihoods of indigenous Sámi fishing communities. They consider the desire to make salmon fishing in Deatnu illegal as a blatantly discriminatory policy that undermines the knowledge of Sámi indigenous people. After all, river Sámi communities have managed to live with healthy salmon populations for centuries.  

The Sámi parliament (Sámediggi), which was inaugurated in early 1996 and is the self-governing body of the Sámi people, is tasked with planning and implementing the cultural self-governance of the Sámi as an indigenous people. According to members of the Sámi parliament of Finland, the prohibition on Deatnu salmon fishing and its effects on Sámi culture, language and community, and also the well-being of the Sámi people, their health, livelihoods and food economy, have not been sufficiently assessed. 

Because salmon fishing in Deatnu is a basic cultural activity for riverine Sámi people, preventing the ban on salmon fishing at the constitutional level is seen as a necessary act of self-preservation. A fishing ban would amount to the violation of a ​fundamental cultural right for Sámi people, which the Sámi parliament considers unacceptable. Denying Sámi the right to fish salmon in traditional ways, however, threatens the continuity of cultural practices and disrupts inter-generational transfers of traditional knowledge. What is more, banning salmon fishing in Deatnu would have a major impact on the local diet, and thereby on the health and well-being of local communities.

Saami community members having a discussion in a big lávvu, a conical tent. The surrounding birches cast shadows on the lávvu wall. Čearretsuolu, Utsjoki, Finland. Credit: Pekka Sammallahti.

Niilo Aikio is a Sámi elder who was raised on the shores of Deatnu. Aikio lives, writes and catches grouse and salmon in Ohcejohka, his birthplace. ‘By banning salmon fishing for three consecutive years,’ Aikio argues, ‘the survival of the river Sámi fishing culture is not secured.’ 

Aikio acknowledges that the ban will affect younger generations of local Sámi people especially:  

Youth should have the possibility to learn traditional salmon fishing. There is a risk that they will be excluded from our traditions. It is an unfortunate issue that seems to happen all over the world, that indigenous peoples are not allowed to pass on their own traditional livelihoods.

Aikio appears confused by the extent that salmon fishing has increased in an area near Deatnu, namely in the Ice Sea.  

The same salmon population is fished over nearby areas, so I don’t see the logic in the restrictions. It is absurd that authorities blame us on the decrease of the salmon population. In addition, the number of Sámi traditional salmon fishers has decreased considerably.

Traditional Sámi fishermen like Aikio understand salmon behaviour and thus know how to protect salmon populations. Aikio is likewise concerned about the negative effects of the salmon fishing ban on Sámi knowledge, for instance language and culture, not to mention livelihoods. He reminds me that salmon fishing is an important livelihood, and that losses should be compensated. 

If other livelihoods are restricted in one way or another, then usually they get compensation, but I have not heard a single word about compensation for the losses of the salmon fisheries caused by the ban.

Five Sámi fishermen were prosecuted for fishing in the headwaters of Deatnu without a licence in 2017. However, the District Court rejected the charges and considered that the Sámi had a constitutionally guaranteed right to fish in their home river. The trial went to the Supreme Court of Finland and the Supreme Court published its verdict in April 2022.

The Supreme Court deemed that the provision of a regulated fishing season was in conflict with the constitutional rights guaranteed to the local Sámi. The provision of the decree was constitutionally disapplied, and the charge of illegal fishing was dismissed. In a separate case, prosecutors demanded that four local Sámi fishermen be punished after fishing with a lure and a rod in the waters of the Veahcajohka without permission from the state-owned forestry company Metsähallitus. 

The Supreme Court considered that the separate fishing permits required for salmon and trout spawning areas under the Fishing Act in force in 2017 and the related permit practices caused such significant restrictions for the local Sámi people that the application of the provision would be in obvious conflict with the rights secured for them in the Constitution. The provision of the Fishing Act was also disapplied, and the charge of illegal fishing was dismissed. 

International law recognizes that indigenous peoples have a right to land, water and natural resources, while recognizing the role indigenous communities play as custodians of rivers and forests. The traditional knowledge of Sámi people with regard to salmon fishing has been passed down over centuries and perhaps even millennia, yet current domestic legislation does not recognize this. Despite recent legal victories for Sámi people, the implementation of the law and its enforcement on the ground is still an ongoing issue in Finland.

We are grateful to members of Unit for Democracy and Elections in the Ministry of Justice for their collaboration in the production of this chapter.

Photo: Saami community members approach Čearretsuolu island in boats typical to the river Deatnu. Čearretsuolu, an island in the Deatnu River in Utsjoki, Finland. Credit: Pekka Sammallahti.

This chapter is part of our ‘Minority and Indigenous Trends 2023: Focus on Water’ flagship report. Discover all chapters >


Oula-Antti Labba