The Hiitolanjoki project has progressed well, much to the delight of Hanna Ollikainen, CEO of the South Karelia Recreation Area Foundation (EKVAS). The final stage of the project started in July 2023 when the hydropower plant of Ritakoski was shut down, and the work to dismantle the dam started after the turbines were removed. The riverbed has been renovated with crushed stone and moraine to maintain the water level at a suitable level. The upward gradient of the river is now shaped to suit the fish, and larger stones and spawning gravel introduced into the river ensure the reproduction of landlocked salmon and trout stocks.
The landlocked salmon is a critically endangered species all over the world and it is important to make the species recover. In addition to migratory fish routes and suitable spawning and nursery areas, the renovation is also about the biodiversity of inland waters, improving habitats for other endangered species.
"Hiitolanjoki is home to Finland's last, original and completely wild stock of the landlocked salmon. As the species reproduces in stream waters, the damming of the river has caused the species to decline," says Ollikainen.
The Hiitolanjoki project has had three stages. The first and lowest rapid, Kangaskoski, was restored in 2021, and the next one, Lahnasenkoski, in 2022. Fishing made for research purposes in September 2023 already revealed large numbers of trout and landlocked salmon. Similar results are expected from Ritakoski.
"The fish will immediately take over the new breeding areas once they get upstream, and the dam will not block their passage. ELY Centre's fish experts have been thrilled. We didn't dare to expect such great results," says Ollikainen of the project, which ends in December.
South Karelia Recreation Foundation's largest restoration project
The Hiitolanjoki river in Rautjärvi municipality in South Karelia has been an ancient waterway, fish supply, log floating route and power source for mills, sawmills and hydropower plants. It is also the main migrating route for wild landlocked salmon of Ladoga.
The Ritakoski power plant, completed in 1921, was built by the local wood and paper mill Aktiebolaget Simpele, which later became part of the Yhtyneet Paperitehtaat. In the 1990s, Yhtyneet Paperitehtaat merged into the UPM Group. Most recently, the power plants were owned by Hiitolanjoen Voima and Vantaan Energia, until 2017, when ownership was transferred to the South Karelia Recreation Foundation. The Hiitolanjoki restoration project is the largest ever project in the history of the foundation.
Mikael Rytkönen, Environmental Manager at UPM Energy, coordinates UPM's stream water programme, which involves demolishing migration barriers, replacing road culverts on forest roads and restoring rapids and streams. The programme aims to release or restore 500 kilometres of stream waters by 2030. As part of the stream water programme, UPM has supported the restoration of the Hiitolanjoki water course through the UPM Biofore Share and Care programme.
The Hiitolanjoki river is not the most significant site in terms of kilometres – there are about 14 kilometres of water course above Ritakoski to be released – but the project will also have other impacts, both on biodiversity and recreational use of the area. "The goal of our stream water programme is not just kilometres, but also positive impacts," Rytkönen says. "The Hiitolanjoki project has already seen great results from the renovations of Lahnasenkoski and Kangaskoski rapids. We believe that the positive results will also be visible in Ritakoski rapid from next year onwards."
UPM is constantly looking for new sites for the stream water programme. "We aim for sites to be on company-owned land or close to our own hydropower plant sites, but we are open to all suggestions," says Rytkönen. "UPM is connected to the history of the Hiitolanjoki area and therefore it is great to be able to support this project."
Renovation continues with new sites
Ollikainen is pleased not only about the improved spawning opportunities for migratory fish at Ritakoski, but also about the fact that accessible paths have been built at the rapids in connection with the project. Cyclists and wheelchair users can now follow the paths to admire the rapids. A bridge will be built to replace the dam and viewing areas will be created around the river.
"The most important thing is, of course, to open up an upstream passage for migratory fish, but the project is also important for the whole economy of the province. The stunning results are the best reward for the work. Thanks to all the good contributors and funders, everyone is needed."
Main image: The Ritakoski rapid flows freely after the dismantling of the old dam, which was the third and final phase of the Hiitolanjoki project. The landlocked salmon of Ladoga is expected to spawn in Ritakoski as well.
Text: Eveliina Lempiäinen
Picture: Mikko Nikkinen