11 March 2021 | 3 minutes.

Journey of Water: How Finland fell in love with migratory fish – and dam removals

Richard Lee
Freshwater Communications Manager – WWF

Richard Lee, Freshwater Communications Manager – WWF

This year REVOLVE has partnered with WWF to showcase the journey of water and how it is inextricably linked to our lives. From the dams of Finland to the deltas of the Mekong, join us on our voyage across the globe as we discover the water-challenges we are facing, and the innovations we are making to overcome them.

They say ‘sex sells’ – and if you want proof, look no further than the trans-formational dam removal campaign in Finland. In the past five years, the country has moved from planning and funding new hydropower dams on its remaining free flowing rivers to removing hydropower dams and freeing rivers for the first time in centuries. One key driver of this paradigm shift was a hugely successful TV and social media campaign entitled ‘mating belongs to all’, highlighting the fact that dams stop migratory fish from reaching their spawning grounds – and having sex!

This innovative approach built on the momentum that had arisen during parliamentary elections in 2015. Back then, political parties were openly planning to infringe key 1987 legislation, which covers the protection of the country’s last free-flowing rivers and wild rapids, by investing in hydropower to phase out coal plants and switch to cleaner energy. While it would have helped Finland to meet its targets under the Paris Climate Agreement, it would also have choked more rivers, threatening fish populations and freshwater biodiversity.

Free-flowing rivers

This served as the impetus for the public to stand up for rivers. Just prior to the elections, WWF and partner NGOs conducted a social media campaign, which pitted hydropower against free-flowing rivers and used citizen polls and meetings with politicians to amplify citizens’ voices. Momentum has only grown since then, pressurizing politicians to not only drop the idea of harnessing the rest of the country’s free-flowing rivers for hydropower, but also to include language on restoring rivers, dam removals and bringing back migratory fish stocks in the government’s new four-year plan.

“Rivers became a big national topic! From destroying to restoring, politicians saw the value of nature – or perhaps they were forced to do so,” said Sampsa Vilhunen, WWF-Finland’s Head of Program for Marine and Freshwater, an avid fly-fisherman and a driving force behind the sea-change in Finnish attitudes to rivers and migratory fish.

A landmark deal

Along with the policy changes, including the government identifying dam removals as an official goal, and large-scale new government funding for restoring rivers, WWF’s campaign has also brought communities, landowners, donors and companies together to remove dams. So far, 32 dams and barriers have been removed, freeing up 650km of river, enabling trout to migrate upstream once again and enhancing river health. Funding has also been secured for many more dam removals.

In a landmark deal, three hydropower dams will be removed over the next few years on the Hiitolanjoki river thanks to WWF and government funding, restoring a series of big rapids and allowing salmon to return to ancient spawning grounds for the first time in 200 years! This big win has generated even more public and media interest and sparked additional dam removal momentum – creating a virtuous circle for Finland’s fish, rivers, and people.

Today, Finland is working to mitigate climate change, but hydropower is no longer a major part of the equation. The country is removing dams and restoring rivers, bringing migratory fish and other species back – while also helping to build resilience to climate change and to tackle the other great global crisis of our time – the destruction of nature.