Trash Fish in Finnish History – some preliminary points

Fishing is the most ancient way for gathering food that remains important globally as Brian Fagan has argued (Fishing – How the Sea Fed Civilization. New Haven & London: Yale University Press 2018). Yet historians have focused mostly on how it was transformed into an industrial activity and how the stocks of the most valuable species like salmon, herring, cod and tuna – the ’fabulous four’ – have depleted paying less attention to the abundant albeit economically less important species. There are some 20,000 species, of which less than 50 are commercially valuable suggesting the potential of the ‘less profitable fish’. However, in most historical studies, fish has been taken for granted without considering their classification into valuable species and trash fish not to mention changes in their consumption. My research focuses on the perceptions of different species of fish in a modernising Nordic country – Finland.

To begin with, fish has been (and remains) inseparable part of Finnish culture. During the 20th century, for instance, the annual catch grew from some 14 million kilos to 156 million kilos with the annual consumption of fish increasing too. Compared to the UK, where fish and chips became celebrated part of the working-class diet by the early 1910s, there has been nothing similar in Finland due to five dominant characteristics of fishing: seasonality, regionalism, unselective consumption, compulsory curing and the role of subsistence fishing.

Seasonality was the most important of these. Ice covered the sea and the lakes from late November until later April in Southern Finland, whereas in Northern Lapland lakes could have ice occasionally in June. Unsurprisingly, fishing concentrated on the spawning seasons in spring and in early autumn. The seasonality of Finnish fishing conforms to Paul Freedman’s claim that ‘food reflects the environment of a society, but is not completely determined by it’ (‘Introduction – a new history of cuisine’, in P. Freedman (ed.), Food – The History of Taste. Berkeley & Los Angeles, CA., 2007).

The second characteristic was regionalism. While salmon (Salmo salar), trout (Salmo trutta) and whitefish (Coregonus lavaretus) were the most valued species, they were abundant in few locations only, most notably in their spawning rivers like Kymi, Kokemäki, Oulu, Ii and Kemi. Most Finns did not live however close to these rivers relying on locally abundant species like pike (Esox Lucius), bream (Abramis brama), ide (Leuciscus idus) and roach (Rutilus rutilus). In contrast to the popular perception that salmon in particular was eaten constantly, evidence suggest that until the early 20th century almost everything caught when fishing was consumed. For instance, first cookbooks written in Finnish in the 1890s had recipes for the less-valued species like roach, rudd (Scardinius erythrophthalmus), perch (Perca fluviatilis) and bleak (Alburnus alburnus) instead of expensive, regional and seasonal salmon and whitefish. The third characteristic was hence the unselective consumption of fish.

The fourth characteristic was the almost compulsory curing of fish. Given the seasonality of fishing, fresh fish remained a seasonal luxury. For the winter period, fish had to be cured either by fermenting and drying or by salting. Different species of fish were cured by using different methods. According to oral histories collected from Keuruu region in Central Finland, more fat-rich species like roach and perch were fermented, whereas drier species like pike and burbot (Lota Lota) were dried. The first notable change in Finnish food culture was gradual transition from fermentation to salting that began during the 17th century, when the price of salt sank. Yet it was not until the second half of the 19th century when salting finally overtook fermentation. In fact, fermenting as a method for curing fish was not mentioned in any Finnish cookbook published after the 1890s. Drying however survived in the cookbooks until the early 1950s despite growing preference for fresh fish, whereas salting discontinued only in the 1960s marking one of the greatest changes in the Finnish diet.

Finland was one of the last European countries, where subsistence fishing remained more important than commercial fishing. The latter concentrated on the major spawning rivers and near the largest towns like Turku (Åbo), Stockholm, Viipuri (Viborg), Helsinki (Helsingfors) and St. Petersburg (since 1721). The importance of subsistence fishing was one of the reason to modernise fishing in Finland through a new scientific discourse, which was born in dire circumstances. Finnish society had experienced a famine in 1866–1868, when at least some 150,000 people perished. The famine initiated the modernisation of agriculture in addition to which it accelerated the discussion how to modernise fishing. One of the ideas was to transform subsistence fishing into commercial and industrial fishing with modern equipment and processing facilities. In addition, all fish species ought to be classified according to their commercial value only. How this concept evolved and who took part in the process, and how did the classification affect the value of various species of fish in addition to their consumption are the key questions of my research that is in progress.