by Monte Burke, Forbes Staff
June 14, 2013
Endangered Atlantic Salmon Are Facing A New And Potentially Devastating Threat
The Atlantic salmon, already an endangered species in the United States and in parts of Canada, is facing a new threat: A recent breakdown in an international agreement with Greenland may mean that tens of thousands of Atlantic salmon—which otherwise would have been protected—will be harvested at sea before they can return to North American rivers to spawn. Clearly the U.S. and Canada should step up and protect their endangered Atlantic salmon by doing what needs to be done to enforce this multinational treaty.
But this latest threat to Atlantic salmon also marks an important day for recreational Atlantic salmon anglers, one that many of us knew would eventually come. It is time for us to radically change our ways. If we truly want to save the sport of fishing for Atlantic salmon, we must release every fish we catch and never kill another one, now and forever.
Some context is needed.
The Atlantic salmon is an anadromous fish. That is, they are born in freshwater rivers and live in them for a time, then migrate to the ocean. At some point, they return from the sea and swim up their natal rivers to spawn. Then the entire process begins again.
For hundreds of years, the oceanic portion of the lives of Atlantic salmon remained a mystery. No one knew for sure where they went after they left their rivers. But that all changed in the 1950s, when massive congregations of Atlantic salmon were found off the coast of Greenland, feasting on sand eels and shrimp, fattening up for their inevitable—and arduous—journey back to their home rivers, which are sometimes thousands of miles away. The vast majority of the fish off of Greenland—80% of them—are of North American origin. The rest are from European rivers.
The discovery of the Greenland feeding grounds, to a large degree, is the worst thing that ever happened to the Atlantic salmon. It is no coincidence that the dramatic—and alarming—decline of the species’ population began in earnest just as the commercial harvest off of Greenland peaked. Back in the mid-1970s, the total population of Atlantic salmon in the North America was close to 1.8 million. It is now roughly one-third of that. In the early 1970s, at the peak of the Greenland harvest, Greenlanders were taking 600,000 large Atlantic salmon a year. By the 1980s—even with Atlantic salmon populations in serious decline—they were still harvesting 300,000 large salmon annually.
The decline of Atlantic salmon populations has been most noticeable in the species’ southernmost range. In the U.S., where Atlantic salmon were once in abundance in the rivers of Maine and Connecticut, they are now listed as an endangered species. The salmon that spawn in Canada’s Bay of Fundy rivers are listed as a “species at risk” by the Canadian government, the equivalent of the U.S.’s endangered species listing.
To be sure, there are many threats facing Atlantic salmon. Dams, climate change and aquaculture have all had harmful effects on the species. But nothing has been as devastating to the species as the killing of millions of large salmon off the coast of Greenland.
In 1984 an international treaty group called the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization was founded to conserve and manage the imperiled stocks of Atlantic salmon. There are currently six members of NASCO: Canada, Denmark (in respect of the Faroe Islands and Greenland), the European Union, Norway, Russia and the U.S. (Iceland was once a member, but the country withdrew after its financial meltdown in 2009.)
The single most important initiative that NASCO has undertaken in its existence is the agreement it has negotiated with the Greenland fishermen. By 1993 NASCO, in the name of conservation, had negotiated the Greenland catch down to 213 metric tons (a little more than 80,000 large salmon). A decade later, Greenland had agreed to a subsistence-only fishery of around 20 metric tons.
NASCO had some serious help. Its work was buffeted by two Atlantic salmon conservation organizations—the Atlantic Salmon Federation and the North Atlantic Salmon Fund—which raised funds from private individuals, foundations and governments (the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation provided money) that went directly to Greenland commercial fishermen to help train them for jobs other than fishing for Atlantic salmon. That money, called the Salmon Fund, amounted to around $300,000 annually from 2002 until 2009. In 2002 and 2003, the Greenland catch was reduced to just 9 metric tons.
The agreement was perfect from a conservation standpoint: The International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES)—a scientific organization that works on ocean sustainability issues—believed the population of Atlantic salmon to be in such an imperiled state that the species should not be commercially fished at all. But for the Greenlanders, fishing for Atlantic salmon was viewed as a right and part of their heritage. The NASCO treaty—and the funds provided by the ASF and NASF—seemed to provide a reasonable balance between to two different world views.
And it seemed to be working. After bottoming out in the mid-1990s at around 500,000 returning fish in North America, populations of Atlantic salmon had been on a slow but steady rebound, culminating in 2011, when around 800,000 Atlantic salmon returned to North American rivers.
But all of that progress is severely threatened once again.
Last year the Greenlanders, who had a supposed quota of around 20 metric tons of Atlantic salmon, instead took 35 metric tons, arguing that this threshold was still a “subsistence” fishery. They could take up to 40 metric tons this year under the same logic. In addition the Greenland government this year has approved a “factory” quota (that is, fish they intend to freeze for later consumption) which could well add another 35 metric tons to their total. The Greenlanders have reasoned that the possible 75 metric tons is still under the umbrella of a subsistence fishery. That 75 metric tons is roughly 35,000 large salmon, which is a significant portion of the remaining North American stocks–and importantly, as large salmon, these are the most valuable spawners. Last year, roughly 600,000 fish returned to North American rivers last year, some 200,000 fish fewer from the year before, a drop that happened to coincide with the larger Greenland take last year.
Here lies the problem: The Greenlanders can pretty much do what they want when it comes to the treaty. NASCO does not have enforcement authority.
Here lies another problem: Part of the Greenlanders argument for taking more fish is that they are not being treated fairly. And guess what? They are correct. Atlantic salmon are being harvested in far greater numbers by many other NASCO member countries, like Scotland, Norway and, perhaps most significantly, Canada.
Last year in Canada, recreational anglers killed 70 metric tons of Atlantic salmon. First Nation fishermen (Canada’s native population) killed another 65 metric tons of fish. Together, Canada’s take is double what the Greenlanders may take this year, which makes for a tough argument when sitting with the Greenlanders at the negotiating table.
NASCO was supposed to help solve this dilemma. It has failed.
So where do we go from here? A few necessary actions:
1. NASCO must step up the pressure on the Greenlanders to live up to the agreement. Denmark (which represents Greenland) is a member of NASCO. It is up to the other five NASCO members to make sure Greenland abides by the treaty as stated. But in order to do that without being totally hypocritical, those members must follow steps 2 and 3 below.
2. The recreational harvest of Atlantic salmon must stop now. It is ludicrous for Canada to ask Greenland to reduce its catch when its own recreational anglers kill 70 metric tons of fish. We no longer need to eat wild Atlantic salmon. “No one should keep and kill an Atlantic salmon anymore,” says Bill Taylor, the head of the Atlantic Salmon Federation. “If we want our kids and grandkids to enjoy the sport of Atlantic salmon fishing, we must release everything we catch.” Recreational anglers have long led the way when it comes to the stewardship of fish stocks and habitat. It is time to lead again, this time by example.
3.Commercial fishing for wild Atlantic salmon must also stop now. NASCO member countries Scotland and Norway still commercially fish for Atlantics. Again, we do not need to eat wild Atlantics anymore. These countries must also lead by example. In Canada the native First Nation fishermen have the right to harvest Atlantic salmon, as granted by the Canadian Supreme Court. That right—as part of their heritage—should never be taken away. However, conservation must take precedence. Much of the fishing done by First Nation fishermen is with gill nets, which kill everything caught (including other species, like trout). The use of trap nets would enable First Nation fishermen to release either all large spawning fish or, at the very least, a significant portion of them.
4. The U.S. and Canadian governments must get involved. The increased Greenland fishery threatens a species that is already endangered in the U.S. and in parts of Canada. If 80% of the fish that feed off of Greenland are from North America, it stands to reason that some of those fish are from the endangered stocks. (Last year, the salmon run on Maine’s Penobscot River was a paltry 614 fish.) Through the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the U.S. is obligated to “cooperate directly or through appropriate international organizations with those nations involved in fisheries for highly migratory species with a view to ensuring conservation and shall promote the achievement of optimum yield of such species throughout their range, both within and beyond the exclusive economic zone.” There is also the not-so-small matter of money. The U.S. government has contributed millions of dollars–some to the ASF/NASF Salmon Fund, and some to the efforts to tear down dams in the Penobscot River to help salmon repopulate that river. That money goes to waste if those salmon are harvested off the shores of Greenland.
5. The ASF and NASF will need to raise more money to retrain Greenland fishermen. The important thing to note there is that money raised from 2002-2009 was not a buyout. It went to Greenland fishermen, helping to retrain them in some other job, or start new businesses to replace the income they generated from commercial Atlantic salmon fishing. This “micro-financing” is far more effective than just paying those fisherman to not fish. The ASF and the NASF will need help.
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