Autumn mist veils the sea and the first September frost has settled on the marshlands. Holiday makers and migratory birds have packed up and gone south. In the Bothnian Bay archipelago, just below the Arctic Circle, fishermen go out to sea. Photographer Anna Öhlund joins them in their hunt for Kalix Löjrom – the Gold of the Bothnian Bay.

Headlights appear along the village road. Fisherman Mats Innala steps out of the car, greets us cordially, then takes a practised jump into his trawler. The engine starts and empty crates are loaded on to the boat by tractor. Mats has worked as a fisherman for 30 years with his colleague Arne Luthström – always with the same partner. They know each other well by now. They hardly need to speak, they still communicate.

This morning’s preparations are completed in ten minutes and then both fishing boats go out to sea. It’s still pitch black and Mats navigates the boat he’s built himself using GPS and sonar. The chartplotter on the screen with hundreds of lines looks like complete chaos to the untrained eye, but with their 30 years’ worth of experience these guys can probably find their way among the islands blindfolded.

We enter Seskaröfjärden. Dawn welcomes us, painting the sky pink. Suddenly the archipelago is impossibly beautiful. Mats slows down and speaks to his colleague over the radio, switching between Swedish and Finnish.
— When it’s business secrets we speak Finnish – that way our competitors in Kalix won’t understand what we’re saying. Mats laughs heartily.
He’s obviously joking. Multilingualism is very common in the area. Many switch between languages almost unconsciously when they speak: Finnish, Swedish and Meänkieli.

Three of Sweden’s national rivers empty into the Bothnian Bay. The Kalix, Torne and Pite rivers provide plenty of fresh water, creating the world’s largest brackish-water archipelago with a salinity of only 0.3%. Vendace body cells can’t maintain their internal salt balance if the salinity is any higher and it’s only here, in the area between Haparanda and Piteå, that the vendace and the small plants and organisms they eat can survive.

On the Finnish side of the Bothnian Bay there are fewer large rivers and the seabed is rockier, which makes trawling more complicated. The recent thick ice and low salinity has contributed to favourable conditions for vendace, and according to the Marine and Water Authority the population keeps growing even if around 1,300 tonnes are caught every season to make Kalix Löjrom (vendace roe) – Sweden’s first food to be labelled Protected Designation of Origin.

The boats come to a stop with their railings against each other and one end of the trawl is mounted on the other boat. The winch steadily feeds out the net as the boats start to move forward, slowly. Any snag or tangle can lead to costly downtime and repairs. The net is shaped like a huge horseshoe between the boats, capturing vendace as the boats dance across the sea. You always trawl in two teams with precise spacing, back and forth across the small bay for several hours. The archipelago is shallow and it takes years of experience to know all its reefs and shallows, stones and rubble. The sun glistens on the water; the clear autumn air and rocking of the boat is gently lulling.

There’s time for many a lot of coffee and reflections on life.

— At least the weather is nice. Some days the freedom you get as a fisherman makes you happy.
— Other times it’s not as much fun, like when it storms for a fortnight. Mats laughs again, scratching his stubble.
When the fishermen decide it’s time to bring the net back in hundreds of gulls start circulating above the mass of dense yarn. It means a good catch, allegedly. Mats and Arne don their oilskins and rubber boots, most work on deck is hard, fast and efficient. Icy-cold sea water and tons of vendace gush into the large crates inside the boat. They don’t wear gloves; Mats explains they’d only be in the way. There’s virtually no additional catch: the correct mesh size means that only vendace of the right size are caught and only occasionally do you get pike, perch or other fish. Sometimes an old tree trunk from the bottom of the sea gets caught and if you’re unlucky it tears the net.

Vendace roe from the Gulf of Bothnia has been trademarked since 2010 and it’s the only food in Sweden to be awarded Protected Designation of Origin by the EU. This means that the “product is produced, processed and prepared within a specific geographical area, using methods characteristic to the region”. Only vendace roe, fished and processed in the municipalities Haparanda, Kalix, Luleå and Piteå, can be called Kalix Löjrom.

The protection means that Kalix Löjrom has achieved the same high status as Champagne, Parma ham and Parmesan cheese. This has increased the roe’s exclusivity, quality and price.

Demands and controls along the production chain are strict and the number of trawling licences are limited to 35 in the entire Gulf of Bothnia. Quality certification, facilities, cleanliness, purity, salinity, texture, how the goods are handled in the cold chain, packaging – everything is carefully monitored by the NFA and samples are taken daily and sent to SLU. It can’t take more than an hour from quay to preparation room. Squeezing the fish and processing the product is done near the fishermen’s ports and the work is almost exclusively manual. There are no machines in the world that can replace the sensitivity of fingers when you quickly and efficiently squeeze the roe out of the little fish.

In recent years, the Association of Coastal Fishermen in Norrbotten have launched a project that aims to increase the use of vendace as food, and an entire recipe booklet has been produced in cooperation with the Swedish Culinary Team.
— Vendace is the provincial fish of Norrbotten and part of the food heritage in the region. Although vendace is tasty as well as healthy, it’s relatively unknown to the wider market. Our hope is that it will get the recognition it deserves, says Folke Spegel, project manager at the Association of Coastal Fishermen in Norrbotten.
The fish itself, not just the roe, is increasing in popularity and keeps appearing on menus in prize-winning taverns and restaurants across Sweden. Vendace has a significantly lower fat content than other Baltic fish such as herring and salmon.

When Mats and Arne are satisfied with the day’s catch we begin the journey back to their home port. The sun is setting and in the ‘garage’, the preparation room in Nikkala, some 40 people soon gather. Everything is prepared for tonight’s work: sorting, roe squeezing, salting and packing – the work is done carefully and nothing is left to chance. The fish crates are transported by tractor along the village road; the preparation room is only a few kilometres from the port. Solbritt, Mats’ wife, is in charge of preparation and sale at the premises. Most workers live in the village and the age ranges from 15 to eighty. Some are related to Mats and Solbritt. They are all good friends and they make coarse but hearty jokes across the tables during these intensive evening hours.

Facts about the fish:
The vendace, Coregonus albula, is a small salmonid. It grows to about 15 cm and can weigh up to 30 grams. It contains around 3-5 grams of roe and the size of the eggs vary during the fishing season: from 0.8 mm during week one to 1-1.3 mm during week five. The season falls between the 20th of September and the end of October every year. Source: the Association of Coastal Fishermen in Norrbotten.

Mats and his colleague retire, they have to settle for a couple of hours’ sleep a night during these weeks. Most of the roe is sold and transported to southern Sweden, but during the evening individuals and famous chefs from all along the coast of Norrbotten come by to buy fresh fish and roe.

Kalix Löjrom, the Gold of the Bothnian Bay, is 110% local craft.

#kalixlöjrom on instagram
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