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Survival of fishing Sámi coastal settlements in Finnmark, Norway

In Finnmark, in the North of Norway, areas around the Porsanger and Varanger fjords have experienced a series of substantial social-ecological changes that have challenged Sámi peoples' livelihoods.
Multiple Authors
Harp seals around rocks in the sea

Case Study Basic Information

Location: Porsanger and Varanger fjords, Finnmark, Norway

Time frame: 1980s-present

Drivers: Changes in cod stocks; invasive species


In the Finnmark region, at the extreme North of Norway, the areas around the Porsanger and Varanger fjords have experienced over three decades a series of substantial social-ecological changes that have challenged the livelihoods of their inhabitants, many of them Sámi people. Historically, the coastal settlements in both fjords have been dependent on marine resources, in combination with animal husbandry, harvesting of terrestrial and freshwater resources, and seasonal wage labor (1). In particular, the Sámi villages along the shorelines are heavily dependent on fishing, not only for their economic wellbeing through the revenues from the fishing industry, but also for their cultural wellbeing through the practice of fishing itself.

Different ecological processes have characterized the region in the last three decades. In the 1980’s the local socio-ecological system experienced strong pressures resulting from fish stocks being devastated by an invasion of harp seals from the Barents Sea. This was likely driven by overfishing of cod and capelin in the Barents Sea, forcing seals to move into the fjords in search of food. Following the crash of the cod population, the number of fishers in these communities began to drop. At the same time, coastal cod progressively disappeared from its usual spawning sites in the region, possibly because of climate change (2).

Other ecological changes have been taking place over the time, such as the depletion of kelp forests as a result of increased population of sea urchins, and the in-migration of the red king crab (alien marine species in this environment) from the Barents Sea. Red king crab was first perceived as a pest by local fishermen, as they got caught in their nets and damaged the harvest, and it is a transmitter of a parasite for cod fry (1, 3). However it is unclear what the effect on local fish stocks is. Although locals report that the fish is almost gone from some fjords, fishery statistics for eastern Finnmark does not suggest that traditional fisheries have declined as a result of king crab invasion (1, 3).

All these ecological changes put strong pressures on fishing activities, leading to further rapid decrease in the number of fishers in the region between 1995 and 2010. They also triggered several social and governance responses in order to maintain revenues from the fishing industry, but some of these measures paradoxically contributed to the decrease in the number of fishers. For example, Individual Vessel Quotas (IVQs) were implemented in 1990 as a response to alleviate pressure on the cod populations, but the IVQs systematically left out small-scale fishers that were already suffering from the harp seal invasions. The IVQ system underwent some changes in the late 1990s in order to ease the livelihoods of coastal fishers in the concerned regions. After 2000, alarming assessments of the situation of the coastal cod stock complex led to new protective measures; fjord lines were introduced in 2004, prohibiting Danish seine fishing (a specific fishing technique) in the fjords. Additionally, a government-sponsored buyout program that ran from 2002-2009 removed many small fishing vessels from the fleet in Finnmark.

Although the described changes in fishing local ecological and social settings have led to a decline in the number of fishermen in this area, other trends may have contributed to the situation too. For instance, the general demographic trend in Northern Norway has been aging and out-migration of the active population (4). Market access and fishing technologies also influence local fishing activities.

Despite the pressures, local coastal communities have exhibited resilience. Both individual and community strategies were implemented to cope with socio-ecological change. For example, at household scale, the traditional way of coping with poor fishing seasons has been to diversify livelihood sources by relying more heavily on subsistence, self-employment or through seeking employment in other sectors. However, diversification of income sources at the household level is a short-term “coping” mechanism to deal with seasonal fluctuations, and in this sense, it is not a conscious long-term adaptation strategy (1).

At community level, one way to respond to fish scarcity was to diversify the catch. During the 1990s, red king crab gradually became a source of income for Unjárga fishers in the Varanger fjord. Unjárga municipality also implemented an active strategy for rebuilding the local fishing industry by funding the development of fisheries infrastructure and by offering grants and inexpensive credit for investment in vessels and quota, in combination with the Sámi Parliament.

The Sámi parliament played an important role in strengthening coastal communities’ resilience. Established in 1989, it quickly became an important institutionalized voice for Sámi people, including the coastal small-scale fishers, to the Norwegian national government. As mentioned, the Sámi Parliament directly supported resilience in the fjord communities by offering accessible loans and grants to residents. Consultations with and points raised by the Sámi Parliament have also concluded in new fishing management regimes that have been beneficial to the fjord communities. For example, an agreement between the Sámi Parliament and the Norwegian government led to higher quotas for small-scale, open group fishers in the Sámi business development area, improving livelihood opportunities through fishing for many Sámi fishers and their families.

Methods and Tools

The methodology for this case study was desk study and experts interview. Sources include mainly journal articles, which rely on both qualitative and quantitative methodologies. The information collected for the case is organized according to a template specially developed to capture information from a socio-ecological resilience perspective (the template can be found here).

This case is one of the cases compiled across the Arctic to inform a qualitative comparative analysis (QCA) of socio-ecological regime shifts in the Arctic that will feature in the final Arctic Resilience Report. The QCA methodology allows for a holistic view of cases in an extended geographic region and for addressing multiple causality. The QCA analysis will contribute to identify patterns that will allow for further analysis across the cases.

Lessons Learnt

This case study highlights how decisions initially taken in order to strengthen resilience of some vulnerable might further weaken the resilience of other actors, as illustrated by the development of the IVQ system. It also shows that local capacity for self-organization was essential in designing measures adapted to the community’s socio-ecological challenges.

It is also important to note the importance of having an institutionalized way of voicing concerns in order to be heard by policy and decision-makers that sometimes sit far and have little experiential knowledge of socio-ecological dynamics taking place in remote part of their country. However, the Sámi Parliament success remains highly dependent on the political agenda at the national level. In this sense, cross-scale interactions remain key factors influencing community-level capacity for self-organization.


  1. Broderstad, E.G., and E. Eythórsson. 2014. Resilient communities? Collapse and recovery of a social-ecological system in Arctic Norway. Ecology and Society 19(3): 1.
  2. Sundby, S., and O. Nakken. 2008. Spatial shifts in spawning habitats of Arcto-Norwegian cod related to multidecadal climate oscillations and climate change. ICES Journal of Marine Science 65: 953–962.
  3. Arneberg, P., O. Korneev, O. Titov, and J.E. Stiansen, A. Filin, J.R. Hansen, Å. Høines, and S. Marasaev. 2009. Joint Norwegian-Russian environmental status 2008 report on the Barents Sea Ecosystem. Part 1-Short version. IMR/PINRO Joint Report Series: 22
  4. Statistics Norway (2016). Population and population changes.


This ARA case study was elaborated by Dries Stevens and Ashley Perl, based mainly on the work of Broderstad and Eythórsson (2014).

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