The Pro Saimaannieriä project strengthens endangered char populations

The goal of the Pro Saimaannieriä project, which started in April, is to strengthen the population of the Saimaa Arctic char in its main habitats. The project was granted funding in the first funding round of Metsä Group’s nature management programme.
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The Saimaa Arctic char is a critically endangered species that favours cold oligotrophic waterbodies. Originally, its main habitats were Lake Kuolimo and the western and southern parts of Lake Saimaa. The species’ difficult situation has been attributed to overfishing, the eutrophication of waterbodies, and a narrow genetic base. The Saimaa Arctic char is fully protected in Lake Saimaa between the Puumalansalmi channel and the Vuoksenniska area.

According to Eetu Karhunen, Senior Specialist at Metsähallitus, the long-term goal is to restore the populations to such robust levels that char can be fished again. He coordinates the project’s funding and communicates with the owners of waterbodies. In addition to Karhunen, two full-time employees are working on the project.

“Metsä Group’s funding has helped us considerably in securing other project funding, and thanks to it, we can launch the project as planned,” says Karhunen.

Many reasons for the endangered status

The Saimaa Arctic char lives exclusively in the Vuoksi river basin, which is home to a naturally breeding char population.
“This genetic bottleneck may be one reason for the decline in the char population,” says Karhunen.

One of the project’s goals is to initiate broodstock collection for the fish farms of Natural Resources Institute Finland. This can diversify the genetic base of char.

“Over time, overfishing has weakened the Saimaa Arctic char population, and the by-catch resulting from various fishing methods may have further aggravated the situation for already weak populations,” says Karhunen.

The project began on schedule

The funding from Metsä Group and other private sources covers the required share of public support in fisheries projects. The support granted by Metsä Group and other private funders enabled the self-financing share to be achieved for the project. The funding also contributed to the positive funding decisions made by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry and the Centres for Economic Development, Transport and the Environment for Southwest Finland and North Savo. “We were able to launch the project according to the planned schedule,” says Karhunen.

“After the project’s initiation, we’ll contact the owners of waterbodies where the Saimaa Arctic char is found. We will organise informative events to provide owners with more detailed information about the planned project measures, goals and schedule. We will also set up working groups to enable local residents and waterbody owners to participate in the monitoring, research on and protection of char,” says Karhunen.

He points out that a robust Saimaa Arctic char population is in the best interests of waterbody owners. Ensuring that the Saimaa Arctic char remains part of the fish fauna in Lake Kuolimo and Lake Saimaa is a pull factor for tourism – and in the long term for fishing – in addition to boosting biodiversity.

“We will begin planning broodstock collection, investigation and monitoring immediately. The intention is to begin broodstock collection before this year. This calls for permission from waterbody owners and depending on the method of collection, special permits.”

Natural Resources Institute Finland maintains a farmed population of the Saimaa Arctic char in Enonkoski and Taivalkoski.

“By helping organise broodstock collection, we contribute to securing both the broodstock and the genetic base. The goal is to annually collect an adequate number of broodfish for Natural Resources Institute Finland to maintain the broodstock,” says Karhunen.

“We hope these varied measures will eventually result in a char population robust enough to be fished,” Karhunen adds.

Text: Annamari Heikkinen

This article was originally published in issue 2/2022 of Metsä Group’s Viesti magazine