Sami fishing rights fight inches forward

Jon Egil Nilsen.

A new amendment allows long established fisheries to apply for priority water rights—a rule that might ease the power of coastal Sami from their land dwelling peers. But first someone has to apply.


As a young adult Jon Egil Nilson lived as a wanderer, working as an engineer in Tromsø and traveling often. But a decade ago, at age 40, he returned to the Porsangerfjorden—where his parents and grandparents have lived in the traditional Sami ways—to try his hand at the family trade: fishing. 

“I wanted to try this kind of life,” Nilson says. “I was going back to my homeland.”

But while he’d been absent the game had changed and its rewards had diminished. In the 1980s, a plentiful fish stock meant that commercial and Sami fisheries split 1000 tons of catch yearly; by the time Nilson began his work about 40 tons was pulled from the fjord. Huge commercial fishing vessels trawled the harbor, cutting into the supply for individuals. Finally, two years ago, Nilson switched to a more profitable enterprise—selling souvenirs.

“It was very difficult to make a living,” says Nilson, who is a former director of Bivdi, an advocacy organization of Sami fishermen. “There are maybe ten people living in this way now.” 

While land dwelling Sami now hold political sway over mining, water, wind-farms and other professions that impact their native lands, for Sami populations that fish for a living, the law has held none of these protections. According to advocates like Nilson, quota laws fail to prioritize the area’s indigenous workers and have handicapped the fjord-dwelling Sami, driving them out of their professions.

The issue rests with the rogue nature of the water. “Coastal rights are weaker than land rights,” says Susann Skogvang, a law professor specializing in labor law at the University of Tromsø. “The principle is that the sea is free for everybody and the resources are free for everybody to exhaust.”

But that was before Finnmark began ruling its waters. When the government established a quota system in 1999, the first cuts were distributed based on the quantity of catch and quality of equipment—leaving the smaller, more traditional Sami operations to the dregs.

Though the traditional narrative is that the quota system unfairly disadvantaged Sami fishing populations, Camilla Brattland, a researcher at the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research, is working on a paper arguing that history should be reinterpreted.

“This was something that the Sami benefitted from before the fishing stock changed,” she says. “They had the same opportunities as everyone to update their equipment. They just didn’t.” 

But beginning this year, the Finnmark Commission has opened up applications for fisheries to submit priority claims to the fjord—depending on how long they have been fishing in the area and how dependent they have been on fishing for their income.

In January the Commission added a new area to its website, where fisherman can submit claims to two ancestral areas.

So far, they have received no submissions.

“I really hoped that this could be effective,” says Skogvang. “But if there are no fisherman claiming to have potential rights then they can’t really complain either.”