Petsamo was its own episode in our fishing history
Petsamo was part of Finland from 1920 to 1944. The region allowed for Arctic Ocean fishing, which was quite different from our traditional fishing culture. Fishing was the primary livelihood of the people in Petsamo even before Finnish control, and it was also a significant source of income for those involved in livestock farming and agriculture. The indigenous Sámi population in the area engaged in fishing, especially inland.
When Petsamo became part of Finland, it brought along tourism, service industries, road and port work, and eventually, in the 1930s, the famous nickel mine with its associated jobs.
The open Barents Sea, an offshoot of the Arctic Ocean, was a harsh but sometimes highly rewarding work environment for the fishermen. Renowned Finnish author Pentti Haanpää once wrote in one of his stories that fishing at sea was like “a one-inch plank between life and death,” referring to the boats of that time that were used to catch seafood at great risk. The sea remained open even during the winter, thanks to mild currents, allowing for efficient fishing. Fishing primarily revolved around cod and flounder species, with herring being significant at times, and salmon being the most important among migratory fish. Tides played a crucial role alongside maritime activities, with daily tide variations of 2-3 meters.
The coastal fishing landscape was dominated by the mouth of the Petsamo River, where the fishing village of Liinahamari was located, and Kalastajasaarento, which was on the western side of Petsamo and part of Finland. Key rivers and waterways included Petsamo River, Paatsjoki, and Luttojoki. Inland lakes were also vital fishing spots. The lowest waterfall on the Paatsjoki River, Kolttaköngäs, was popular among sport fishermen.
Ownership of the area had been disputed since the 16th century and was shaped by the pressures of the Saami, Norwegian, Russian, and Finnish settlements. The diverse population consisted of not only the indigenous Kola Saami but also other Saami groups, Russians, Karelians, and Norwegians, in addition to Finns who gradually migrated to Petsamo. The initial steps towards Finland’s annexation of the area began in the late 19th century. In exchange for a border closure between Finland and Norway in 1852, the Russian emperor granted Finnish Saami the right to fish and hunt seals on the Arctic Ocean coast. In the Tartu Peace Treaty on October 14, 1920, Petsamo was attached to Finland until the end of the Continuation War in 1944. When it became part of Finland, the population was nearly 1,500, and by 1926, it had exceeded 2,000. In 1944, over 5,500 residents were evacuated from the area.
The region’s livelihoods naturally divided into two categories. The Paatsjoki Valley and the inland areas relied on reindeer and cattle herding, river and lake fishing, and hunting, while the Petsamo Fjord and Kalastajasaarento villages primarily depended on sea fishing. The mobility between livelihoods and different population groups was seasonal. The indigenous Kola Saami people lived according to their subsistence economy, based on coastal and inland fishing, hunting, and gathering.
More permanent Finnish settlement, influenced by many nationalities, primarily expanded into Petsamo from Northern Ostrobothnia and Finnmark in the 19th century. The significant famines of the 1860s were a key reason for the Finnish migration to the icy shores of the Arctic Ocean in search of a better life. Finns learned fishing, navigation, and boat-building techniques from the maritime Saami and Norwegians, while they introduced agriculture and livestock farming to the region.
After the Tartu Peace Treaty, the administration of the area was reorganized, and Oy Petsamo Ab was established to regulate economic conditions. The state sought to improve economic conditions through settlement activities. Petsamo had already become a kind of “America” for the Finns who had moved there, rich in natural resources. However, it also became somewhat of a burden for Finland since the economic utilization of the area was not thoroughly planned. In addition to fishing, the region’s mineral resources, particularly nickel, were essential. The construction of Petsamo Nickel Ltd’s facilities in Kolosjoki began in 1937, but the war interrupted these efforts. The war disrupted the area’s promising development and the deep-sea fishing industry adopted by the Finns.
Conditions for the trade of fish products in Petsamo were favorable. Dried fish, in particular, had a good reputation due to the climate being more suitable for drying than in Eastern Finnmark. The fishing fleet initially consisted of sailing boats, and later, in the late 1920s, motorized boats and ships were added. Weather conditions limited fishing, as the outdated equipment typically couldn’t support autumn fishing and offshore fishing. Traditional coastal fishing methods were still in use for quite some time, and it was only on the brink of World War I that deep-sea fishing, influenced by the economic growth of the 1930s, began to take hold. Industrial large-scale fishing brought innovations to fishing techniques and fish processing. In the years 1921 to 1926, Oy Petsamo Ab bought the offered amounts of fish, after which the Petsamo Fish Sales Cooperative became the primary buyer.
Looking more closely at fishing, professional fishing was divided into small-scale and large-scale fishing. Many individuals, as well as small fishing communities based on family labor, engaged in small-scale fishing. The equipment improved as open sailboats were replaced by motorized vessels, extending fishing to offshore waters. Large-scale fishing, which began in the late 1920s, required significant motorized vessels. Industrial offshore fishing with trawlers commenced in the 1930s. Large-scale fishing employed both hired labor and owner labor.
The sea was teeming with target species. The main target was cod, along with related species like haddock and hake. Other commercial catches included redfish, plaice, saithe, salmon, trout, catfish, herring, and Arctic char. Occasionally, even the northern shark species, Greenland shark, were caught. Cod fishing, as a whole, was multiple times more significant than all other species combined. The catch was usually processed by drying and salting. Drying racks for fish, known as “jällit,” were a common sight along the shores of Petsamo.
Coastal fishing gear included “juksapilkki” (a type of fishing lure), longlines, nets, and various types of traps. Fishing started in May-June and continued with different methods until October. Herring fishing, which was based on a strong herring population, was the last, occurring every ten years. To give an idea of the scale of “small-scale methods,” consider the “turskarätti,” a longline typically consisting of 9,000 to 15,000 hooks and managed by motorized vessels, which could extend for tens of kilometers.
Open-sea fishing was based on trawling, or drag-net fishing. For this type of fishing, motorboats weighing over 10 tons were used, allowing them to venture as far as the waters of the Svalbard, Bear Islands, and Iceland. The beginning of true industrial open-sea fishing was marked by the establishment of Elfving’s Fishing Fleet Ltd. in 1931. In the same year, Loviisa Fishing Ltd. also began its operations in Petsamo, and subsidiary companies, Petsamo Fish Ltd. and Fishmeal Factory Ltd., were established for local activities. In 1936, several companies engaged in large-scale fishing merged into Suomen Kalastus Ltd., which also had active operations in Petsamo.
World War II disrupted the history of Finnish fishing in Petsamo, and the population had to flee the area. The multifaceted story of the northern “Klondike,” surrounded by legends, came to an end from our perspective. In the words of Kiril Sergejeff, who wrote about Petsamo with great experience: “Farewell to the paradise of fishing nets.”