Big Atlantic Salmon Runs Foster Hope for Fish

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The NASF has been working to establish environmental agreements with commercial fisheries in the North Atlantic. In return for significant financial compensation and alternative employment opportunities, fishers have agreed to cease or to dramatically cut back operations off Greenland and the Faroe Islands—the salmon's main ocean feeding grounds. Commercial fishers who intercept fish on their homeward migrations are also being bought out.

Vigfússon says up to 150 million U.S. dollars have been raised to fund these agreements, which have been backed by the Canadian government, among others. The NASF estimates that between four and five million salmon have so far been saved.

The Greenland conservation agreement, signed in 2002, has already benefited North American stocks, according to the Atlantic Salmon Federation. The St. Andrews, New Brunswick-based environmental nonprofit promotes salmon conservation along the continent's eastern seaboard.

"The Greenland fishery has not operated for two years now, and this has stopped the salmon's precipitous decline," federation president Bill Taylor reported last August. Taylor said the agreement should provide momentum for restoring healthy salmon runs to hundreds of rivers.

"Some very large salmon that have made their migrations from home to ocean feeding grounds and back three, four, and even more times are returning in greater numbers than predicted," he added.

Andrew Wallace, director of Scotland's Association of Salmon Fishery Boards, said, "It's not easy to put your finger on one thing and say, 'That's what's turned things around.' But these agreements must be contributing to the improving situation."

Nets Buyout

Referring to a 2003 buyout of drift nets used off England's North Sea coast, Wallace added, "It's made an absolutely enormous difference to rivers in northeast England. [Salmon] figures have leapt in a staggering way."

Electronic fish counters installed to monitor upstream migrations support the evidence of increased salmon runs, Wallace noted, adding that habitat-improvement work on rivers may also be helping to reestablish populations.

And Wallace said anglers are doing their bit by releasing around 50 percent of the salmon they catch.

While catch-and-release has long been part of the fly-fishing culture in North America and Iceland, in Britain it's a relatively new concept.

"If you had gone back ten years and told people to put back fish, they would have laughed at you," Wallace said. "There's been a tremendous attitudinal change."

Vigfússon said his North Atlantic Salmon Fund is now well into the third and final phase of its action plan: safeguarding salmon as they migrate back to their native rivers to breed.

"There is little point in protecting the salmon on their oceanic feeding grounds if they are then to be intercepted by nets along the coasts of Scotland, Ireland, and in Norwegian fjords," he said.

The NASF is currently negotiating the buyout of nets sited in fjords in the Trondheim region of Norway. Vigfússon hopes the multimillion-dollar scheme will become a model for similar agreements throughout Norway.

He said that tackling drift netting off western Ireland is an urgent priority. Figures from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea—a research body composed of some 1,600 marine scientists from 19 North Atlantic countries—suggest Irish nets have claimed more than half a million salmon in the last three years.

Vigfússon said these salmon are bound not only for Irish rivers but also for other European countries where stocks remain perilously low.

"Restoration programs in France, Spain, Germany, southwest England, and Wales cannot really begin until we have got the Irish nets removed," he added.

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