"They have eaten a lot of herring"– The fishing history of the Stockholm archipelago

20 January, 2022

The Stockholm archipelago has been fishing for 9,000 years. Commercial fishing was widespread long before motorization and modern-day industrial trawlers. Herring and cod have been the most important species, and for Stockholmers, fish have contributed greatly to both jobs and protein intake. We go through the fishing history of the area with two experts.

stock with thousands of herring barrels
Stockpile of thousands of herring barrels at Värtahamnen in 1915. Photo: Larssons Ateljé; Stockholm City Museum

“It’s always important to know what has happened in the past. The past is what we have to relate to if we are to know anything about the future and what it is like now,” says Henrik Svedäng, associate professor at Stockholm University.

Svedäng has recently written a research report called Fishing in the Stockholm archipelago during historical times. There, the main focus is on the 1800s, since it is only from that time that there are proper statistics to look at.

But based on archaeological finds, we know that seal hunting has been fished and conducted in the Stockholm archipelago for 9,000 years. Someone who has looked far back in local fishing history is archaeologist Peter Norman.

“This kind of story about the ordinary people and how they lived in prehistoric times has interested me for a long time,” he says.

In the summer of 1979, when Norman was working on ancient monument inventory, he went around the Småland archipelago and went ashore on the islands.

“That’s when I got hooked on these remains of the simple huts that had been at the far end of the archipelago. And eventually I figured out that they must have to do with fishing,” he says.

ancient fishing villages
Remains of ancient fishing villages. Photo: Peter Norman

Several of the remains that Norman has later investigated, especially on islands along the Sörmland coast, date from the Viking Age and just before.

In addition to the stone remains, archaeologists have found several objects that indicate that they have had the sites as a base for their fishing.

“We have found charcoal, firefighting flint and fire-blasted stones that show that they have been set on fire. We’ve found the net sinks, fishing hooks and fish bones,” Norman said.

At this time, there are said to have been no permanent herds at the fishing villages in the outer archipelago. They lived and fished there during the summer months, and they often did it to fill the fish needs of a larger farm in the country. But these structures probably changed in the early Middle Ages, and more people began to cultivate the fishing villages.

“Society changes in the early Middle Ages and cities are emerging. There is also a population growing up that needs to buy their goods in a market, and there the fish may have played a role, says Norman.

During the 1400s, a lot happened for organized fishing at the Stockholm archipelago and the surrounding coast.

In the 1430s, fishing began to be part of the guild system, with the creation of the seine fisherman’s office in Stockholm. Notar, or seine warps, are a kind of early versions of trawls that are dragged through the water into a beach or a boat.

In 1450, the first port order, as well as the first known legal text on fishing, was written on Huvudskär. The document was a kind of regulatory framework for how to behave in the fishing port, and for how taxes and fees should be paid.

“This was part of the royal power’s quest to gain access to these resources, be able to tax them and increase their power. And it shows that it was quite a large and extensive fishery,” says Henrik Svedäng.

Another milestone in the history of fishing is the establishment of the sumptuous fisherman’s office in 1636. After this, you can only buy live fish if you are one of the swamp fish, who had a rather sophisticated way of taking the live fish into the cities.

The fish were carried by special vessels that were built for the purpose. In the stern there was a so-called sump. There were holes in the tables so that the water where the fish was stored was replaced and oxygenated, while there were frequent shots against the front of the boat so that the boat did not sink.

“These transports were made long distances. All the way down from Kalmar you could transport cod to Stockholm, and all the way from the top of Vaasa and Turku. Turku residents complained about Stockholm’s fish buyers and wanted to stop buying the fish, but did not succeed. It was obviously a well-functioning transport network, which meant that they had good food quality in Stockholm, says Svedäng.

fishing harbour
Fiskarhamnen with Södermalm in the background in 1896. Photo: Stockholm City Museum

When the fishing boats reached Stockholm, the fish would be kept alive in the oxygen-poor water at Skeppsbron and Slussen until it would be sold. That assignment was given to a so-called sumprunkare – a profession that is held, among other things, by the main character Henning in Fogelström’s classic The City of My Dreams.

They boarded an Åland boat that had come with fish at dusk. The fish wouldn’t be auctioned off until the next morning. It was the sumptuer’s job to keep it alive by keeping the boat moving all night so that the water circulated. A rope was made high up on the mast, where the big boom fork was located. The stone, which was pierced, was hooked to the bottom of the rope and would dangle a bit up in the air in a hook. Another rope butt was attached to the stone and it had Henning start pulling until the stone rocked like a bell-clapper. It was some time before he got it in smooth and safe gait, Kikus swore and cursed when the angle didn’t get right: was he going to crack the mast? And if he didn’t get any speed, bigger turns it would be! More and more until the whole boat rolled.

From The City of My Dreams by Per Anders Fogelström

Keeping the ships rocking and the fish alive during the night could be protracted and tiring, and in the morning the work often continued.

“The swamp runs also helped drive the fish out to restaurants and the like,” says Svedäng.

This is how it goes on into the second half of the 1800s. When you start shipping fish with the help of steamers, it becomes less important to be able to keep the fish alive for a long time. When fishing gradually becomes motorized, the fishing villages in the outer archipelago also largely disappear, as you can now go out daily and fish. Before these radical changes, the tools used in fishing should not have changed significantly throughout history, according to Peter Norman.

“The gear did not change over time to any great extent, and the same applies to the boats. It was very static over the centuries. Society changed, and you maybe fished for different reasons, but the fishing itself didn’t change much until the engine’s entry in the early 1900s,” he says.

The researchers’ studies show that many different species have historically been fished in the archipelago. At times, sprat has been more attractive than herring, and spigg has been fished to be used as fuel for oil lamps.

Norse fishing at Strömparterren, date unknown. Photo: Karl Ransell; Maritime history museum

But cod and herring have been the most important. While cod stocks have varied considerably, the availability of herring seems to have remained fairly constant in the waters of the east coast.

The modern industrial trawlers that fish a little further out from the coast and threaten the Baltic Sea’s fish stocks did not exist in the 1800s, but in the Stockholm archipelago, coastal fishermen took up an awful lot more herring than they do today. During a year in the late 1800s, they were able to catch 3,000 tons of herring in the Stockholm archipelago, compared to a few tons today, according to Svedäng.

And it seems to have been needed to feed the townspeople of the time.

In 1885, steamboats transported 56 million fresh herrings to Stockholm.

“There will be about one herring per Stockholmer per day. Then there’s what the farmers brought in, and the salted herring for which there was a market. So they’ve eaten a lot of herring. The salted herring also means that you got thirsty and wanted a lot of beer, says Henrik Svedäng.

Fishmongers singles out about fishing luck in 1942. Photo: Vimar Ericsson; Svenska Dagbladet; Stockholm City Museum

Stockpile of thousands of herring barrels at Värtahamnen.
Larsson’s studio, 1915, Stockholm City Museum; Image number SSMD005042
Rights 210120: CC-BY

Fiskarhamnen with Södermalm in the background 1896
Unknown photographer; Stockholm City Museum; Photo number Fa 50393
Rights 210120: CC-BY

Norse fisherman at Strömparterren
Karl Ransell (K.A.), Maritime Museum, Fo77470C
Rights 210120: CC-BY-SA

Fishmongers singles coin
Ericsson, Vimar, September 11, 1942; Stockholm City Museum; Photo number SvD 32641
Rights 210120: CC-BY

Fishing tools from the 1300-1500s.
Stockholm Medieval Museum; Item number:
Meth hook: SSM:28495
Buoy: SSM 46994
Net stick: SSM 577:2
Wooden mallet: SSM 49547
Mesh pin: SSM 11562
Net sink: SSM 45138
Rights for all 210120: CC-BY

Text: Daniel Hedström
Photo: Vimar Ericsson, Karl Ransell, Larsson's studio, Peter Norman (More info in the fact box above)

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