Forbes Magazine - Lifestyle
The State of the Atlantic Salmon
21 Mar, 2016
Monte Burke , CONTRIBUTOR
The Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar, a.k.a. “the leaper”) is what’s known as an indicator species. That is, the health—or the lack thereof—of the species is an indicator of the general environmental health of its surroundings.
On that score, the indications have not been very good.
In the 1970s and 80s, there were roughly 1.8 million Atlantic salmon returning to North American rivers to spawn. That number dropped to 418,000 in the 1990s, thanks mainly to commercial overharvest and habitat destruction.
Hundreds of thousands of salmon used to swim up rivers—like the Penobscot and the Connecticut—in the United States. Today, the Atlantic salmon is listed as an endangered species in the U.S. and in parts of Canada.
There is hope, though. Since hitting that low in the 1990s, the North American population of Atlantic salmon has, gradually and slowly, been on an uptick. Recent estimates suggest that somewhere around 600,000 salmon have returned to their native rivers to spawn.
Much of that success—and the reason for perhaps even more hope for the future—is due to the Atlantic Salmon Federation.
The ASF is based in New Brunswick, Canada. With just 7,500 members, it is tiny compared to some of its peers—Trout Unlimited has somewhere close to 150,000 members and Ducks Unlimited’s membership is around 780,000.
And yet the ASF has, for many years now, punched well above its weight in the fight for salmon conservation, pushing governments and commercial and recreational fishermen to do the right thing, and getting real tangible results. The ASF has led the way in tearing down dams. Maybe most important, it spearheaded an agreement to close the commercial harvest of Atlantic salmon off the coast of Greenland. In 1971, the Greenland fishery was taking 2,689 metric tons of Atlantic salmon. Thanks to the ASF-led agreement, it’s now down to what amounts to merely a subsistence fishery for Greenlanders.
Since 1995, the ASF has been led by a man named Bill Taylor. The 55-year-old Taylor—a former hockey player with the scars to prove it—is one of the most impressive conservationists I’ve ever met. He is indefatigable. He is always on point. He’s an incredible fundraiser. He’s passionate enough to know when the ASF must go on its own and make its own deals. He’s calm and reasonable enough to work with governments when needed. He does not do this on his own, of course: ASF donors (which includes the Irving family, Marshall Field, Sr., and Paul Volcker) and its small, but dedicated staff, are all conservation heroes, as well. The group brings to mind the great quote from Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
With Atlantic salmon fishing season right around the corner, I thought it was time to catch up with Taylor to talk about the state of the Atlantic salmon in 2016.
BURKE: Last year was a big one for Atlantic salmon, at least in the US. Spawning fish have been found in the Connecticut river watershed. Your thoughts?
TAYLOR: The past year, 2015, was certainly an encouraging one for wild Atlantic salmon and the thousands of people who care about this iconic species. Returns of adult salmon to the several hundreds of rivers of eastern Canada and the handful of rivers in New England that harbor the species were up from the year before. But we need to keep in mind that 2014 was the absolute worst year on record for Atlantic salmon runs in North America. But still, an increase in returning adult salmon means more spawners and that’s encouraging.
Yes, last fall, Atlantic salmon were found spawning in the Farmington River, a tributary of the Connecticut River, for the first time in two hundred years. That’s pretty incredible and does offer hope. The salmon returns to the Penobscot River in Maine more than doubled last year compared to 2014. In eastern Canada many well-known rivers such as the Miramichi, Restigouche, Grand Cascapedia, Bonaventure and Margaree reported big increases in their salmon runs compared to the disappointing runs of 2014. That’s all good.
BURKE: Tick off a few of the most important developments in Atlantic salmon conservation in the past few years.
TAYLOR: Despite the general downward trend in wild Atlantic salmon runs over the past few decades, there have been some significant conservation victories for the species in recent years.
First and foremost there has been a huge reduction in commercial fishing for Atlantic salmon at sea thanks in large part to the efforts of the Atlantic Salmon Federation (ASF) and our partner, the North Atlantic Salmon Fund (NASF). Twenty years ago more than a thousand tons, or about 300,000 salmon, from many different rivers were harvested at sea as they migrated to and from their feeding grounds at Greenland around the Faroe Islands and Norway. Today only a few thousand salmon are harvested for subsistence purposes at Greenland and the Faroes. Norway is still netting far too many salmon, but we’re working on that.
There have been huge victories for Atlantic salmon in rivers like the Penobscot in Maine where ASF, a coalition of conservation groups and the Penobscot Indian Nation purchased and decommissioned three dams opening up more than 1000 miles of new habitat for salmon and ten other species of sea-run fish like shad and herring.
We’re making amazing breakthroughs in our research into salmon migrations and survival at sea which are helping us to understand the complex relationship between the salmon and their predators and prey and the impacts of changing ocean conditions and temperatures caused by climate change.
We’re focusing on identifying and protecting important cold water refugia in rivers so salmon have cool pools to rest in during hot summer periods which are becoming more and more prevalent as our climate warms.
More and more anglers are doing their part by carefully releasing the salmon they catch so the fish can continue its migration to the spawning grounds and contribute to the future health of the species.
We are working with some far-sighted First Nations communities in Canada who have voluntarily transitioned away from their gill net fisheries which kill every fish they catch to selective gear like trap nets which enables Native fishermen to safely release the important large female spawners.
BURKE: How are you feeling about the overall health of the species? We know that populations are very far below historical norms, but have they stabilized a bit? And are you optimistic about the future?
TAYLOR: It depends on the day. Most days I am feeling optimistic about the salmon’s future. The generally improved runs on most of the Canadian and New England rivers last year provides some hope that we can do more than just slow the inevitable decline of this extraordinary creature. But in the conservation business, its often two steps forward and one step back so there are some disappointing and frustrating days as well.
Wild Atlantic salmon are amazingly resilient. They have survived ice ages, huge commercial fisheries bent on harvesting every last fish, dams that blocked access to and from their spawning grounds for hundreds of years, habitat destruction caused by clear-cutting and poor agricultural practices and now the unknown consequences of global warming. The challenges facing the survival of salmon are daunting but I am hopeful and confident about their future. The salmon’s future may look differently than it does today though. There will definitely be regions where the pressures are too much and we lose some salmon populations. I am thinking specifically about the salmon’s southern range both in North America and Europe. But there may be more northern regions in eastern Canada, Iceland, Russia and Scandinavia where salmon runs actually increase as well.
BURKE: You’ve talked about the various threats facing Atlantic salmon—habitat degradation, warming waters, open sea survival, overharvest, etc. Is there one that’s bigger than the others? One that you have put more time and effort into trying to fix?
TAYLOR: In my mind, and I think most Atlantic salmon conservationists and scientists would agree, ocean survival—from the time juvenile salmon known as smolt leave their home rivers and migrate into the North Atlantic to feed for a year or two or three until they return as adults to their rivers to spawn—that period of ocean migration is a big black hole. Smolts go out but don’t come back in the numbers they used to or that we expect. For some unknown reasons the survival rates from smolt leaving their home rivers to adults returning to spawn are at their lowest levels ever. On a river like the Miramichi in New Brunswick, where we have decades of good data, survival rates of outgoing smolt to returning adult spawners have dropped from an average 6-8% twenty five years ago to only 1 or 2% today. For a river that produces about 2 million smolts each spring that’s the difference between a salmon run of 150,000 like the Miramichi had in the mid 1990’s to a run of only 20,000 like we had in 2014.
ASF is dedicating a lot of time, energy and money into research to determine the causes of low marine survival. In fact we’re doing more than any organization or government. I am so proud of our research team and all that they have accomplished. But solving the marine survival issue is a long term, extremely expensive endeavor. While our scientists are working on this we also need to be doing more to reduce as many of the human impacts as we can. We need to invest more in habitat protection and rehabilitation, we need to transition open net pen salmon farms that threaten wild salmon with diseases, sea lice and genetic pollution to closed containment, we need to take down more dams that block access to spawning grounds, anglers need to carefully release their catch and more First Nations need to fish with selective gear so they can release large spawners. Governments need to do more than just supply lip service to salmon conservation. It can’t be left to NGOs like ASF to do all the heavy lifting. Canada and the U.S. must work with us. They need to invest more in marine research and help us in negotiating fair deals with salmon fishermen at Greenland and Norway that reduce their harvests to sustainable levels.
BURKE: Do you think that all Atlantic salmon fishing should be catch and release?
TAYLOR: That’s a really good and complex question. Personally I believe anglers should release every salmon they catch. As Lee Wulff said so many years ago “…Atlantic salmon are too valuable to be caught only once.” If we expect First Nations and Greenlanders to reduce their harvests then certainly anglers need to do their part, in fact we must lead by example. I believe for us to do otherwise is hypocrisy.
However, I also understand that from a purely biological standpoint that if a salmon population in a river is healthy and is surpassing its spawning target every year, then there is a harvestable surplus of salmon in that one river. There are many rivers in Iceland, for example, and some in Newfoundland and Labrador and a few in Quebec and New Brunswick, that most years exceed their spawning targets. Theoretically, those rivers have a harvestable surplus of fish. In an ideal world our rivers would have abundant salmon runs and a surplus of spawners so that there could be small, carefully managed terminal fisheries. But we live in a far from ideal world.
With so many pressures on the species, I just have a really difficult time rationalizing how we as anglers can justify killing any salmon in light of the generally depressed state of the resource and at a time when we are trying to get the Greenlanders and First Nations to reduce their harvests.
BURKE: For the ASF—and a number of other sportsmen-related groups—one major issue is age. That is, hunting and fishing in general appear to be having trouble getting younger people involved. How do we fix this?
TAYLOR: That’s definitely a problem. ASF has had strong and stable membership for a long time. And during that same period there has been a big decline in the number of salmon anglers due to a declining resource and diminishing access to good salmon fishing. I am amazed and very grateful that ASF’s membership has stayed so strong and active and supportive. But as our membership ages, I do worry about where that next generation of salmon anglers and salmon conservationists will come from.
Just this year ASF started a new program dedicated to community engagement and attracting and hopefully involving new and younger people in salmon angling and conservation. The feedback we’re receiving has been really encouraging. There are a lot of younger people, maybe they’ve been trout fishermen or saltwater fishermen or women flyfishers, who we’ve never done enough to connect with. But the early signals are that we are onto something and I believe it’s going to translate into a boost to both the great sport of Atlantic salmon angling and hopefully a growing, stronger and even more engaged ASF membership.