On the Brink

Beset by problems old and new, the Atlantic salmon
faces an uphill battle for survival. Meanwhile, its defenders continue fishing for answers.

by Monte Burke

"Atlantic salmon are in dire trouble," says Bill Taylor, president of the Atlantic Salmon Federation (ASF). "In some regions they're even in danger of extinction." Nowhere is the species' future more tenuous than in Maine's seven Down East rivers and Cove Brook, and in the 32 rivers in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia that empty into the inner Bay of Fundy. In 2000 only a few hundred wild salmon returned to the inner Bay of Fundy rivers--a decline of more than 99 percent in 15 years. In Maine there are more dams than salmon. Its rivers are run by only 75 to 110 wild Atlantic salmon--the last in a U.S. population that once numbered in the hundreds of thousands and ranged as far south as the Connecticut River. In November 2000 the Atlantic salmon was listed under the Endangered Species Act. Sadly, that listing may have come too late.

The news from both sides of the North Atlantic is disheartening. In the past 30 years Atlantic salmon populations in North America have declined 75 percent, from 1.5 million large salmon and grilse to just 400,000. And the 3 million wild salmon now returning to European rivers represent just half of the region's historical average.

How did the situation get so critical? Taylor, who is acknowledged by his peers as the leading Atlantic salmon authority and activist in the world, identifies four major problems facing the Atlantic salmon: low marine survival, commercial fishing, degraded freshwater habitat, and salmon farming. How we address these issues will ultimately determine the Atlantic salmon's fate.

Poor Marine Survival

With the Canadian government's buyout of commercial fishing nets in the 1980s and 1990s, conservationists believed that they had solved the biggest problem facing Atlantic salmon--mortality in the ocean. But in the decade since the nets were removed, the number of North American salmon returning to their natal rivers to spawn has declined by 66 percent--a drop that has baffled scientists. "Something is amiss at sea," says Carl Safina, vice-president for marine conservation at the National Audubon Society.

Identifying the problem is a difficult task in an ocean that remains, to a large extent, unexplored by science. Theories range from an exploding predatory seal population to increased commercial bottom fishing that has devastated populations of capelin and sand eels, the salmon's primary food sources. And global warming, which has actually made waters colder near the melting polar ice caps, may also play a role in disrupting feeding patterns.

The Atlantic Salmon Federation, which is based in St. Andrews, New Brunswick, and has 8,500 members, has completed the first stage of a five-year acoustic-telemetry study of salmon habits in the Bay of Fundy. The study has provided data on the migration of smolt--young salmon--and the impact that seals, birds, and other predators, and even aquaculture, have on salmon populations. "We're at the point where we can take this to the greater ocean," Taylor says. "But not without the necessary funding from governments."

Commercial Fishing

Although the buyout of the commercial fishery was not a complete solution to the salmon problem, it remains a true success story in Atlantic salmon conservation. By 1998 all commercial nets in Canada had been bought out, at a cost to the government of $72.1 million (Canadian). And through the combined efforts of the Atlantic Salmon Federation, the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization (an international treaty organization), and the North Atlantic Salmon Fund, the commercial catch in Greenland has gone from 1 million salmon a year to a subsistence level of 70,000. But mixed-stock fisheries (which intercept salmon at sea that have migrated from different rivers) still exist in Ireland (which takes 200,000 salmon a year) and Great Britain (which takes 70,000).

The North Atlantic Salmon Fund's president, Orri Vigfusson, has led attempts to raise private money to buy out commercial nets in Greenland at a fair-market value, mostly on a year-to-year basis. "Only these economic arrangements work in the long term," says Vigfusson, who believes that the Greenlanders should be allowed a commensurate share of the stock if and when the salmon recover.

Taylor and the ASF offer a different point of view. "Buyouts like the one in Greenland are the answer, but they should be permanent and not year to year," Taylor says. "And we need to put pressure on the Irish and British governments, as opposed to relying solely on private monies, to permanently buy out commercial nets."

Freshwater Habitat

While ocean mortality remains a mystery, the problems in rivers are a known entity. "It's not the biggest issue we face, but it is one area we can directly control," Taylor says. Manmade dams impede fish passage; clear-cutting near rivers increases siltation and decreases the ability of woodlands to absorb water and shade rivers; and agricultural industries--like blueberry farms in Maine--lower the water table and pollute rivers with pesticides.

In the 1990s excessive logging on the Lake Branch, a tributary of the Grande Cascapedia River on Quebec's Gaspe Peninsula, led to increased spring flows, streamside erosion, and sedimentation, nearly wiping out important salmon spawning habitat. In response, citizens in the area formed the Coalition for the Integrated Management of the Cascapedia Watershed, which successfully obtained a one-year moratorium on logging to assess its impact on the watershed. Since then the coalition has worked with logging companies on improvements, including better road planning and logging practices. In 2000 more than 20 sites in the watershed were upgraded, and repairs were completed on logging roads that had been carrying sediment into waterways. "This is a perfect example of how regional and local river associations can work together to protect Atlantic salmon," Taylor says.

Catch-and-release recreational angling also plays a role in salmon conservation, although it has its critics. "Personally, I'm not comfortable with catch-and-release," says Audubon's Safina. "I'm just not sure that it's ethical to be catching a species that's in such trouble."

But Taylor, who is a salmon angler, points out that studies show that catch-and-release mortality is close to nil and that recreational fishing is the economic foundation of many of the region's communities, generating revenues of $65 million annually in New Brunswick alone. "Recreational anglers are in close contact with Atlantic salmon, and those who interact with a species are more likely to become involved in the preservation of that resource," he adds. According to Taylor, recreational anglers contribute at least 75 percent of Atlantic salmon conservation money.

Fish Farming

This is the thorniest issue facing salmon conservationists, because aquaculture, which generated $80 million in Maine last year alone, remains poorly regulated. Ironically, the ASF was among the earliest proponents of aquaculture, which was once viewed as a conservation tool that would lessen worldwide demand for wild Atlantic salmon. But no one foresaw the havoc that farmed fish would cause in wild populations.

Parasites and disease, among them the devastating, infectious salmon anemia, which has spread from farmed salmon to wild populations, flourish in overcrowded pens. And when escaped farm-raised salmon run rivers, they interbreed with wild fish, weakening the gene pool and lowering survival rates for wild fish. The Norwegian government has found that an average of a million farmed fish have escaped their pens in each of the past five years in Norway alone, resulting in the extirpation of wild salmon in 39 rivers. In the United States and Canada, aquaculturists are not required to report escapees, but a privately funded ASF study recorded 50,000 escaped fish from one Nova Scotia site alone. In 2000 about 100,000 salmon escaped from pens in Maine, state officials report.

While aquaculturists vehemently deny that their fish have any negative impact on wild stocks, independent, peer-reviewed studies have shown that the high concentration of pens in the troubled Bay of Fundy has played a role in the loss of wild salmon in rivers that drain into the bay. The ASF is pushing for legislation under which pens would have to be constructed more securely and placed at least 20 miles from river mouths.

Then there is the issue of genetically engineered (or "transgenic") salmon. These farm-raised fish, implanted with winter flounder genes, grow twice as fast as wild salmon. Interbreeding with escaped fish could be devastating to wild populations, according to a study by two Purdue University biologists. But there is little, if any, regulation in place for this technology, which seems to grow as fast as its fish.

In the face of all these problems, there have, of course, been valiant efforts made to save the Atlantic salmon. The Rhine was once the most productive salmon river in Europe, perhaps the world. But by the 1940s the great river had no more salmon. Today the Rhine's once fetid waters are clearing up, thanks to the installation of sewage-treatment plants. German fishing groups have worked with their government to construct fish hatcheries on Rhine tributaries and fish ladders at weirs. One survey showed that some 200 adult spawners returned to the river in 2000.

In the United States, the Connecticut River, where hundreds of thousands of salmon once swam, was completely bereft of the fish at the start of the 20th century, mainly because of its impassable dams. Recovery efforts began in 1967 when Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Connecticut teamed up with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to restore the fish. Since then millions of dollars have been spent in this effort, which includes stocking as many as 10 million salmon fry a year. Three years ago some 300 salmon made it back to spawn in the Connecticut and its tributaries, though last year only 72 did.

The efforts on the Connecticut have been done in good faith and good science, and the very presence of fish in these long-mistreated waters is a promising sign. But some argue that it may be time to redirect some of the millions of dollars spent on the stocking program to tackle and tear down the biggest barriers facing the salmon: dams.

Monte Burke is a reporter for Forbes. His work has appeared in Men's Journal, Sports Afield, and Town & Country. Leaper: The Greatest Writing on Atlantic Salmon, which he coedited with his uncle, Charles L. Gaines III, was published by Lyons Press in October 2001.


© 2001  NASI

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What You Can Do

To learn how to help Atlantic salmon, consult the Atlantic Salmon Federation (506-529-4581), the North Atlantic Salmon Fund (354-568-6277), the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization (011-44-131-228-2551), and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Ask your representatives in Congress for more ocean research, tighter regulations for farm-raised and genetically modified salmon, and watershed protection. For contact information, visit the Senate and the House of Representatives on-line.

What about eating salmon? Wild Alaskan salmon are acceptable table fare, but farmed salmon are not (nor are Atlantic salmon, of course). For information on other species, consult The Audubon Seafood Guide. The National Audubon Society's Living Oceans program (888-397-6649), which uses science to advocate for marine fish and ocean ecosystems, also publishes a Seafood Lover's Almanac and a downloadable seafood wallet guide.