“Catches at the moment are looking really bad, and this is part of a trend that has been growing since 1999,” said Thomas Hägglund, managing director of surströmming producer Hannells.
Surströmming, often referred to by the uninitiated as “rotten herring” is traditionally eaten in August, and has been a part of the Swedish food tradition since the 16th century. The fermentation process gives the fish a strong – and to some people unpleasant – smell, from which seasoned surströmming eaters often try to anaesthetise themselves with copious quantities of aquavit and strong lager.
“People in Sweden always look forward to the surströmming premier, when the fish are traditionally served,” explained Hägglund to The Local, adding that the dish has also acquired fans in Japan and Britain.
The current shortages mean that this tradition is threatened. Hägglund blames drastic drops in fish numbers on overfishing by industrial trawlers in the Baltic Sea.
Whilst Hägglund says that he still holds out hope that fishermen will find more fish before the canning process starts around Midsummer, he adds that the long-term outlook is bleak if drastic action is not taken.
“The last two or three years have been really bad. In 2004 one of the fishermen that supplies us caught only 15 tonnes. In 2003 he had caught 50 tonnes. It’s gradually getting worse.” Another fisherman has this year decided to abandon fishing for herring altogether, and is focusing on other fish instead.
Industry figures are now calling for stricter fish quotas to preserve stocks. Hägglund says that he has appealed to the National Board of Fisheries to get them to act on the problem. But, he says, his pleas have fallen on deaf ears:
“They need to listen to the people who are out on the sea, and who see that there simply are no fish.”
The most immediate effect for consumers of the herring shortage will be drastic price increases. The prices of this year’s batch will not be known until later this year, and will depend on how many fish are caught in the rest of the season, but Hägglund emphasises that if catches remain m in the long term, “it’s going to get expensive.”