An important part of the chain:

From fish to fur

At first glance, the magical sunset seen from the deck of a fishing boat may seem far away from everyday life on a fur farm. However, both being part of the chain of producers in the fur industry, they have plenty in common. Fishermen and fur farmers are both important employers and consider it a matter of honour to continue and preserve family traditions. They also share an important role in sustainable development and have a great need for the younger generation to learn the tricks of the trade, lest they be forgotten. In this article, we take a closer look at the everyday life of the fisherman.

Teemu & Risto

In the port of Replot, Finland, we meet fisherman and entrepreneur Risto Vehkaperä. For him and his fellow fishermen soon arriving at port, it’s just another Thursday morning. We, on the other hand, have a whole new experience ahead of us – we get to go on an overnight fishing trip.

Risto’s company is a primary fish supplier for the fur and fishmeal industry. The fishing is made ecologically sustainable through quotas, where each fishing vessel is allowed to catch a certain amount of fish. Fishing for herring is also important to remove phosphorus and nitrogen from the sea, as it causes eutrophication. 

From fish to fur animal feed

When the trawler Rölli arrives at the port, the herring catch is transferred by a suction-discharge system to the lorries waiting in the harbour. The herring catch continues immediately towards Ostrobothnia, to a company that manufactures feed for fur animals. Most of the catch from professional fishermen in the Baltic Sea consists of herring and ends up as feed for fur animals or in the fishmeal industry.

The trawler’s loading dock is washed, and the fishing vessel is cleaned. Afterwards, we all go for a morning coffee at the local bar. A regular brings the fishermen a bag of chanterelles as he buys fresh fish directly from the port.

This afternoon, we accompany Risto and his 23-year-old son Teemu Vehkaperä on the trawler Silli. The trawler is clean and well-equipped. In the two double cabins, the crew can sleep well at night and the sofa bed in the day room also provides an opportunity for rest. Heikki’s son Santtu also goes to sea on Rölli at the same time as Risto, and Teemu heads out on Silli, but the trawlers take different routes to find out where the fish are.

A trawler, which lowers and lifts a trawl, always needs two crew members. Together Risto and Teemu decide where to start fishing. When they find their spot, the lowering of the trawl is quick. Teemu throws ropes and floaters into the water with practised skill. Risto comes to help, and soon the whole trawl bag is open. The trawler Rölli moves to the side of Silli, where Santtu quickly picks up the other side of the trawl. Rölli then sets up at a distance of about 200–250 meters to the port side of Silli. This is where the ten-hour trawl begins. Once the trawl is down, we have time for a chat.

I was drawn to the profession where the work is independent.

Fifth-generation fisherman

Risto Vehkaperä says he has been fishing for 35 years as a 5th generation fisherman.

– Fishing runs in the family. I’ve been interested in it since I was little. I was drawn to the profession where the work is independent, and you can be your own boss.

Risto’s hard work is counterbalanced by leisure time at his cottage in Ruka, where he does downhill and cross-country skiing and hiking. His son Teemu rides a snowmobile, spends time with friends, and also fishes in his spare time. Usually, they work a week and then have a week off.

During our conversation, Risto points out that not everyone understands professional fishing.

– Some people think we’re catching fish with a line.

In the same way, the difficulties and diversities of fur farmers’ work are also not well understood outside their industry. In the fur and fishing industry, the trade often passes from father to son.

– The fisherman’s profession has continued in my family, and you can only learn it by doing.

Risto is proud to know his profession.

– I’ve taught two of my sons the industry. They’ve been with me since they were little, and we have a lot of fond memories from those days together.

Risto’s son Teemu has been involved from the age of 6. Teemu laughs and says he remembers one particular trip well from that time, as he was throwing up the whole way.

– But it didn’t scare me off, he says.

The winds of change

During our talk, Risto reflects on the changes and challenges in the industry.

– I’ve been fishing for 35 years, and a lot has changed over the years. Herring used to be an important fish for human consumption, he says, but sales of food herring have declined. The climate has also changed and become considerably windier restricting fishing opportunities. However, the weather forecasts are more reliable nowadays, Risto concludes. 

The average age of fishermen has increased, according to Risto, who believes the industry would benefit from younger fishermen. However, getting into the industry is difficult since business ownership is often passed on through generational transfers.

– If you were to start from scratch, you would need a lot of start-up capital and make big investments because you would have to buy a whole company to fish with trawls, Risto says.

Teemu plans to continue his father’s work because he is interested in the fishing industry. However, he wonders about the future since his work is directly linked to the development of the fur industry.

Early mornings and long days

As the night approaches, Risto watches the trawler advancing at 2.3 knots. The sun is setting, and the sea is calm. Sometimes the TV broadcast in the room is cut off. The news of Queen Elizabeth’s death has also reached the trawler Silli. We hear the radio crackle for a while. The crew on Rölli and Silli communicate via VHF radio phones and sometimes correct the ship’s course.

It’s time for an evening sandwich.

– By the way, we always cook coffee in a pot here, Risto laughs.

He then shows us on the radar how the fish rise to the surface to eat now that the sun has set. It’s a full moon and the sea is peaceful. Teemu replaces the bedding in his cabin and the smell of freshly washed sheets spreads through the rooms.

– All right, now I’m ready for bed, he smiles.

The following day, we wake up before five o’clock, and it’s time for morning coffee. Risto shows the past routes of the trawlers on the radar, which go back and forth near the Norrskär lighthouse. Risto peeks into Teemu’s cabin and wakes him up. Teemu is up and awake quick as a flash. At half past five, they start lifting the trawls. Rölli moves towards Silli, and for a moment they are side by side, while the crew remove the trawl from Rölli.

The entire trawl is pulled in. Floaters are picked up one after another, and at the end, there is only a big bag of shimmering silver herrings. Finally, the trawl is pulled to the vessel’s side, and its mouth is connected to a large pump, emptying the fish into the water separator and onto the loading dock. Teemu keeps an eye on the fish at all times, noting their size and quantity.

Risto goes to bed, and Teemu turns on the autopilot and fries eggs and sausage for breakfast. The trawler is moving steadily towards the shore as Teemu fills in the delivery form for the feed manufacturer Torp Frys. Tonight’s catch with Silli is estimated at 20 tonnes. Rölli’s catch yesterday morning was 44 tonnes. The highest single catch in three hours has been 230 tonnes of fish. Trawl fishing is regulated by quotas which Risto considers a good thing.

– The annual quota for both vessels combined is between 5 and 6.5 million kilos, he says.

A fisherman is his own master.

A matter of honour

Of course, all professions have their downsides.

– As a negative, I might mention the length of work trips, Risto says as he estimates that it at most takes him 750 km to reach the Turku archipelago.

– The annual variation in fishing quotas is also disappointing, he continues. The EU makes the decisions, but fishermen should also be consulted. Fishermen themselves have a very good view of the state of the sea because they work there all the time, Risto states. 

However, the positive sides are what have kept Risto in the industry for so long.

– The profession provides financial security, he points out and continues. A fisherman is his own master. You can plan your days how you like and have time for activities in your spare time.

As we get closer to the harbour, Risto returns to the heart of the matter.

– It is a matter of honour to be able to pass on the legacy of the family.


The link between fish and fur

The sustainability of fur is about more than just its natural origin. Many industries are linked to fur production, each playing an important role in the sustainability chain. Read more about how fishing aids the environment in the article Sustainability as a link between industries.