Herring fisheries drove economic development in the Baltic Sea

Published on November 29, 2021

Stockholm university together with the Swedish Institute for the Marine Environment hosted a full day symposium with a focus on fisheries in the Baltic Sea from a historical perspective. The newly released report “Fisket i Stockholms skärgård under historisk tid”, Fisheries in the Stockholm archipelago in historic times, was the underlying reason for the event.

The different presenters painted a picture of a fishery of high importance in the Baltic Sea region. Especially the herring has been of utmost importance to avoid starvation during bad times, and a source of wealth and richness in good times. Archaeological remains show a vivid abundance of fishing communities from the iron age and onwards. Bones from seals, cod and herring are found in the old settlements.

During the 1400th century and forward the herring fishery in Denmark was a way for the crown to gain taxes and the first statute to regulate fishing in Sweden (called ‘hamnordning’) dates back to the year 1450. In Denmark there was a peak in the herring fisheries in the mid 16th century, according to historical tax data. Also, studies show that an isolated genetic herring population was wiped out in the 17th century in Limfjorden, due to the inflow of saline waters. It has never returned.

A transition from a fishery that was owned by a wealthy landowner who controlled everything, as was a common model during the viking age, to a more state owned and market oriented fishery where fishermen often paid for access, in the middle ages can be traced through historical records. The modern fishery in the Baltic Sea was developed in the early 20th century with the introduction of steam ships and mechanical engines.


Coastal fisheries flourished

Historical fish researchers give an exciting picture of the Baltic fisheries during the last 300 years, starting with the 1754 doctoral dissertation De piscatura harengorum in Roslgia, by Nicolaus Humbles. Several old zoologists and researchers give a good view of the fisheries of the time, and also show that there could be a flourishing coastal fishery in the Baltic sea although the gray seal population was about 80-100 000 and the ringed seal population reached approximately 190-220 000 seals. However, the old data reveal some conflict between fishermen and seals, where fishermen used several strategies to avoid seal damaged gears and stolen fish. Nevertheless, according to Sundevall (1855) there were no connections between the fluctuations in herring abundance and seal predation. Furthermore, historical records show eutrophication, skinny cod, abundance of stickleback and also a variation of species composition, very much the same problems as are experienced today but on a smaller scale. The introduction of steam engines and propellers spurred a fear of underwater noise disturbing the fisheries, and the feeling of “fisheries was better in the good old days’ seems to be a prevailing notion. Since 1914, the Statistic Sweden has been keeping track of fishery activities in Sweden.

To sum up, fishing has been a cornerstone of societal wealth where the herring has been the most important species. Modern research is now developing methods to further analyse the herring population from a genetic perspective, to shed light on biodiversity and sub-populations that might need better protection. Also, the interactions between herring, sprat and cod is vital to the ecosystem functions and it is shown that large cod are appearing at the same time as large herring, and vice versa.

Over all, knowledge is increasing and hopefully new research may aid the policy into better protection of both fish populations as well as ecosystem functions and processes.