Hunting and fishing in the Åland Islands in olden times – the first inhabitants were seal hunters and fishermen

Seal hunting and fishing attracted the first people to Åland from the east over 6,000 years ago. It is believed that they first came to hunt and fish seasonally before settling in the Åland islands on a permanent basis.

Åsa Hägg

Intendent, Ålands Jakt- och fiskemuseum

Hunting seasons were good, and seals were hunted with stone clubs, harpoons, and nets. Everything from the seal was used, including the hides, fat, bones, and meat.

Åland was inhabited during both the Bronze and Iron Ages

The Åland Islands have been permanently inhabited for over 4,000 years. Although it was initially home more to hunter-gatherers than farmers, Bronze Age archaeological finds which date from 1,500 BC show that farmers also lived in Åland at that time.

Good fishing waters, the availability of seals, and Åland’s location along a trade route from the east have all created ideal conditions for a growing and prosperous society.

Åland and fishing: herring was the most common catch in olden times

Herring was the most common fish species caught in the old days. Over time, the supply of herring has gone up as well as down. At such times, cod and scaly fish, such as perch and pike, have been of great commercial importance.

Other food fish species, such as burbot, whitefish, pike, bream, roach, and bleak were important for the household. Although these fish were sold occasionally, they were less important as commercial fish.

Herring nets were made from homemade linen yarn and later from cotton. In the 17th century, fish were usually salted, but before this, dried fish was more common. Already in the 17th century, perch and pike were transported live to Stockholm.

 Fishermen arrive at the fishing village in their wooden boats.
When the spawning fish are no longer near the home shores, fishermen must travel out to the fishing villages to catch them.

Seine-net fishing in the springtime

Seine netting is a very old method of fishing. These types of nets take many forms in connection with old fishing culture. Until the mid-19th century, it was the only reliable method of fishing to catch spawning herring in the spring.

A seine net could be very large, sometimes measuring up to 200 metres long. A smaller seine net was generally used to catch perch and pike. Many people from different households often worked together to use large seine nets.

Fishing villages and autumn-spawning herring

When fish could not be caught near the home shores, fishermen were forced to travel out to the offshore fishing villages.

Between the 25th of July (Feast of Saint James) and the 14th of September (the Finnish Name Day for Ida), all of the home villages were empty except for the sick and the elderly. All able-bodied adults and children went to the fishing villages in the outer archipelago with their fishing nets and jig baits for catching cod.

The working days in these fishing villages were long and the pace of work almost inhuman. For example, travelling to the fishing villages and markets was often dangerous. Although the work was very tough and there was a lack of home comforts, these days were still considered a highlight of the archipelago life, especially among the young people.

Seal hunting has a long history

Seal hunting was not only practised during the Stone and Bronze Ages but continued down through all the years since, as well as in winter, spring, and summer. While most of the seal hunting was done by men, both men and women took part in fishing.

 A seal is resting on a small bare islet.
Seals thrive on the rugged cliffs of Åland.

Seal hunting is still allowed in Åland. Although the catch limit is 450 seals per year, only a few hunters still hunt seals anymore.

On the other hand, fishing is still important in the Åland Islands albeit mainly for recreational purposes. The most important species in commercial fishing are perch, pike, pike-perch, salmon, and whitefish.