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Big Atlantic Salmon Runs Foster Hope for Fish

James Owen
for National Geographic News
January 10, 2005
 
Last year a silver tide of salmon flooded many rivers in Europe and
North America. Scotland, Iceland, Canada, and other countries
reported big gains in the number of Atlantic salmon returning to
their native rivers.

The strength of these runs offers hope that conservation efforts are at last beginning to pay off, say activists who have sought to reverse long-term declines in Atlantic salmon stocks.


The Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) is fabled for its extraordinary life story: The fish migrates hundreds, even thousands, of miles from ocean feeding grounds to run against the current in river rapids and on falls to reach the very waters where it was born.

Revered by anglers as the "king of fish," the salmon's reputation as a sport fish is unmatched.

Over the past 25 years the number of returning salmon has fallen to a fraction of the fish's historic abundance in many regions. Precisely why remains unclear. Possible factors include commercial fishing, reduced food availability at sea, degraded river habitats, and ecological problems linked to salmon farming.

However, conservationists take the recent upturn in European and North American salmon runs as a sign that wide-ranging measures to reduce commercial catches are helping to turn the tide the salmon's way.

Scotland's official catch by anglers for 2004 is set to top 80,000 for the first time in ten years, according to Scotland's Association of Salmon Fishery Boards (ASFB), based in Edinburgh. The 50-year annual average is 67,000 fish. Anglers on the River Tweed in southeast Scotland landed more than 14,000 salmon, one of the biggest hauls ever recorded in Britain. Several other Scottish rivers also broke their all-time records, according to the ASFB.

Renowned rivers such as the Miramichi and Restigouche in Canada and the Grey River in Newfoundland report some of their best salmon fishing in 20 years, said Orri Vigfússon, chairman of the North Atlantic Salmon Fund, based in Reykjavík, Iceland.

Iceland itself had its most productive season since 1978, with consecutive increases in the total number of salmon landed by anglers for the past four years.

Restoration Goal

The North Atlantic Salmon Fund (NASF) is an international coalition of nongovernmental organizations with the stated aim of restoring wild salmon stocks. A privately funded body, the NASF has focused its efforts on reducing the number of fish taken by commercial fishers at sea.

"Too many salmon fall victim to commercial netting in salt water before the fish can reach the comparative safety of their home rivers," Vigfússon said. "This keeps the spawning stock artificially low—a desperately bad situation when stocks are low anyway."

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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