The Atlantic salmon: a species in trouble

Often regarded as the King of Fish, the Atlantic salmon is one of the world’s great voyagers. To complete its journey from gravel spawning beds in the upper reaches of a river, down to the ocean where it travels thousands of kilometers, and back to its natal stream, the salmon has to avoid predators and compete for food. It must also survive the dangers created by humans.

Once, the Atlantic salmon was found from northern Spain to the Arctic, and from North America to northern Russia, but in the twentieth century its reign over the piscatorial world began to decline. Damming of rivers, fishing, pollution, and other human activities have contributed to the demise of the salmon in many areas. Fish farming, too, has threatened wild stocks by introducing diseases and weakening the genetic strains of wild stocks as farmed fish escape to mingle and compete with wild salmon. In Norway, for example, salmon stock imported from the Baltic Sea for farming brought with them a freshwater parasite to which only the Baltic stocks are immune. Now, one third of Norway’s rivers are devoid of life, having been deliberately poisoned in an effort to eradicate the parasite. Even this effort has failed in some of Norway’s larger rivers. Norway’s total salmon stock has dropped four-fold in the last thirty years.

Overfishing is another threat to wild salmon. Salmon from a particular river tend to stay together in the ocean. Improvements in fishing technology have enabled a single fishing vessel to catch the entire run of a salmon river in just a few hours. The effect of such practices is that the salmon population as a whole has declined drastically, and total fish catches have followed. Because the total catches are likely to include escaped farm fish, the catch of wild salmon has probably dropped even further.

Today, Iceland and northern Russia are the only places where the wild salmon remains relatively healthy. Rivers on the Kola Peninsula have been protected by their remoteness while in Iceland a ban on virtually all salmon netting, strong conservation measures, and active restoration programs have together protected wild spawning stocks and helped them recover from natural disasters such as volcanic eruptions that destroy spawning populations. Such efforts are not cheap, but recreational salmon fishing can attract tourist revenue up to one hundred times the market value of the fish itself. With catch-and-release fishing, the salmon need not even die to benefit the local economy.

The fight for control of the dwindling salmon population continues. Organizations such as the North Atlantic Salmon Fund promote the elimination of commercial fishing through the purchase of salmon quotas and the retraining of fishermen for other species or other jobs. The long-term prospects for the wild Atlantic salmon are unclear. If the King of Fish is to continue its reign, fisheries and habitat management will need to change.

Orri Vigfusson, North Atlantic Salmon Fund, Reykjavik, Iceland. From the CAFF publication, Arctic Flora and Fauna,