An SOS from the Baltic Sea

Aaron Israelsson

While the world is belatedly rising up to the climate challenge, a less-noticed environmental disaster is silently destroying the habitat of 90 million people. One single voice is trying to stop the tragedy. Legendary reporter and now Fojo teacher Folke Rydén is a Greta Thunberg for the Baltic Sea. Although he is not exactly thrilled about the comparison.

Home of a hundred million people

“Clams have a brain”, a poaching fisherman tells me. But the moral of this story is that humans need to smarten up in order to save our planet. That’s the message of a familiar voice to the Swedish TV audience.

For anyone having watched TV news during the nineties, Folke Rydén is a household name. This legendary news reporter’s very characteristic – homegrown – accent and his sharp facial features make his appearance a bearer of coziness and nostalgia for the last generation growing up without internet.

For the last decade, Folke Rydén has made it his mission to help save the Baltic Sea, the shores of which are the home of nearly a hundred million people, from environmental disaster.

Rydén makes documentary movies and teaches a course at Fojo called “The Baltic Sea”. His goal is to get more reporters to cover this blow to our ecosystem.

Once a commercial centre of the Hanseatic League and capital of the 15th century Kalmar Union, picturesque Kalmar, inspires much the same sensation as Folke Rydén – one of nostalgia and coziness.

At this time of year, however, in early September, when the summer tourists are all gone, the atmosphere is somewhat uncanny in Kalmar’s medieval alleys. As if a zombie apocalypse has just occurred. The unpleasant stench from the polluted Baltic Sea is all-present and adds to the feel.

In a classroom at Fojo headquarters in the old harbor area, Folke Rydén talks to a group of about 30 journalists who are attending his course.

He begins with a recap of his life as a news reporter. In the revolutionary year of 1989 he was sent to what is usually the most sought-after posting in the Swedish news industry: correspondent for the public broadcaster SVT in Washington D.C.

Because of the dramatic events unfolding in Eastern Europe at the time, however, he received few assignments until 1990. That’s when George Bush the elder made the mistake of announcing he was not a fan of broccoli and farmers all over the country sent truckloads of the stuff to D.C. Folke Rydén concluded the segment with a humorous twist. Instead of a mic he held a broccoli in his hand.

A mistake as grave as Bush’s. The piece was never aired.

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After this initial gaffe, Rydén’s career was prosperous, he stayed on in the USA for years, and then went on to numerous warzones and famines. But eventually he feared the cynicism of the media business had caught up with him.

“If any of our viewers called in, it was because (anchorman) Claes Elfsberg’s tie was skew, not because of me reporting that people were starving.”

At a point where Rydén was starting to tell journalism students not to believe that they could change anything, he had an encounter in the bar at the Gothenburg Book Fair.

“Do you want a beer?” someone asked him from behind.

He didn’t have to turn around to answer.

“I like beer.”

The generous bar buddy was famed photographer Mattias Klum. They started talking about environmental issues around the world.

”For cod’s sake”

“We have this moral superiority in Sweden that makes us feel that we can tell Malaysia not to cut down their rainforest or Africa not to shoot their rhinos. But we are not capable of taking care of our own environment back home.”

In 2007, Klum and Rydén started working on their ten-year project on the Baltic Sea. All in all, they made seven documentaries. The first one was about the cod population.

“No one wanted to talk to us at first. The fishermen thought media reporting was too one-sided. The scientists that it was too simplified. And the politicians didn’t want to touch on this at all.”

After some persuasion Folke Rydén and Mattias Klum managed to get a fishing boat to let them tag along.

“We couldn’t believe our eyes. This fisherman Kenneth had to dump half his cargo because of EU regulations. Not a single one of the cods that were thrown back into the water survived.”

Later their film, “For cod’s sake”, was able to help in attaining useful results. The European parliament banned dumping.

Their next documentary was “Dirty waters” (2011), about the pig farms and chicken factories in Poland, Russia and Belarus, which spew out manure that ends up in the sea.

“It’s as if a city the size of Uppsala would not have sewage”, says Folke Rydén.

The third film “The second wave” features the baby boy Alfred, in the Stockholm archipelago, who has 20 times more toxins in his little body than his mother.

“Let’s have some cod and some chicken, shall we?” Folke Rydén sardonically concludes when it’s time for lunch.

Thirty years ago, there was quite a lot of debate on the already deteriorating situation in the Baltic Sea. Now there’s mostly talk about climate change. Is there room for several conversations on the environment at any given point in time?

“You cannot automatically assume that people will be interested. But their commitment will rise when they realize this affects them. Knowledge results in action. I mean, we can build nuclear power plants, we can fly to the moon, we should be able to stop filling the oceans with shit. The climate is very abstract. What happens with the Baltic Sea is much more concrete.”

Would you agree that you are the Greta Thunberg of the Baltic Sea?

“That is the worst comparison I’ve heard.”

As we finish the cod on our plates and board the bus, Rydén sums up the imminent threat to the cod.

“Although there is now a dumping ban in place it is hard to police compliance. There are no inspections at sea. In Canada, the cod population collapsed in 1992. The world’s largest stock disappeared over 20 years ago and has not returned since. Then again, in the North Atlantic the situation is sustainable. So, it can be done.”

The serene Hagby fishing village at the Kalmar strait is nowadays turned into an ecological laboratory. In an old barn Folke Rydén gathers his Fojo students for a last pep talk before we’re to take a closer look at the clam farm out at sea.

“Get your ideas ready before going back to your newsrooms. Make something of them right away. Get this out of your system.”

That’s exactly what the clam farm in the strait between the coastline and the island of Öland is supposed to do. Shells are being planted in order to suck up a lot of the overfertilisation that otherwise would add to the ecological problems. They get it out of the system.

Janne Andersson, a retired diver, takes us out in his fishing boat.

“The clams have a brain when they move around, you see. But when they root in a colony they go into a vegetative state. But they still have some brains left, because when they don’t like it, they let go.”

He points to a vulture flying over us and says it looks hungry.

“I used to be a predator in these waters myself. Nowadays my grandchildren have me throw the eel back into the sea. That sucks for an old poacher like myself.”

Why import manure from Brazil when we have this field in the sea right here? You journalists need to help us fertilise the public so that they become aware

— Fisherman Janne Andersson