Other Environmental Themes

A Last Chance for Wild Salmon

With about 98% of the world's Atlantic salmon now coming from fish farms, one might think wild salmon stocks would be experiencing a great resurgence. But the anticipated rebound has yet to materialize. Before the advent of commercial fishing in the 1960s, an estimated 2.5 to 5 million wild salmon migrated between ocean feeding grounds and their native rivers in Canada and the United States. Then the free- fall ensued: Between 1973 and 2001, the number of wild Atlantic salmon returning to spawning rivers in North America dropped from 1.6 million to 400,000. The situation is worse for larger salmon that spend two consecutive winters feeding in the rich waters off the coast of Greenland. Only about 100,000 of these creatures now return to North American rivers, compared to 800,000 that did so 25 years ago.

Fortunately, a slight improvement has occurred in the past few years, though high mortality at sea still places the population in jeopardy. The exact causes of salmon mortality remain a mystery, with proposed explanations including predation, food availability, environmental change, disease, and parasites. Yet Orri Vigfusson of the North Atlantic Salmon Fund (NASF) believes ocean fishing poses the greatest hazard. His group and the Atlantic Salmon Federation (ASF) helped forge a 2002 agreement that suspended commercial salmon fishing near Greenland, which is where the greatest exploitation occurred. An estimated 75% to 90% of the salmon harvested in Greenland migrated there from North America.

The Greenland accord temporarily closed the last commercial fishery targeting North American Atlantic salmon. (The United States closed its Atlantic salmon fisheries about 50 years ago, while Canada followed suit in the 1990s.) In exchange for abandoning the salmon catch, Greenland's commercial fishermen are offered new jobs in sustainable fisheries or in other industries. Most of these jobs involve harvesting lumpfish (used to make "poor man's caviar") and snow crabs.

As the Greenland moratorium helped arrest the salmon's precipitous decline and lead to modest population gains, NASF and ASF are now working to extend the agreement (set to expire in late-2006) through at least 2011. "If we don't solve the fishing problem," says Vigfusson, "we can forget about seeing wild Atlantic salmon in North America, no matter how much we clean up our rivers."