THE KING OF THE RIVER
Salmon were once abundant across Britain, their epic migration a wonder familiar to everyone. But numbers have plunged in recent decades, laments Charles Rangeley-Wilson, and urgent effort is needed to save this magnificent fish
Igrew up in London in the 1970s and was mad about fishing, though God knows how I sustained my enthusiasm; the Thames was ecologically dead in those days and our Sussex school had only one muddy, anoxic pond called Stinkers. So I was 14 before I saw my first salmon. It was during the summer holidays, when I went to Ireland to stay with Simon, my best pal from school.
Simon’s dad drove us over in his red, Citroën 2CV, heading west from Cork to the sea at Kenmare and beyond. On the way, we began to cross those rumbustious little rivers that tumble off the west-coast hills: the Roughty, the Finnihy, the Blackwater and finally the beautiful Sneem River. It was beside one of these that we stopped and I saw a salmon jump a waterfall. The memory still plays like a film in my head, the bright salmon catching the top ledge of the fall, thrashing its tail until it was swallowed by the teastained water of the river above. For me, it was like a spark touching a fuse and I have pursued salmon, like Yeats’s wandering Aengus “through hollow lands and hilly lands” ever since.
TO AND FROM THE OCEAN
I am not alone: the salmon inspires myth, religion, poetry and the devotion of thousands. Small wonder, as the huge journeys it undertakes, its athleticism and beauty are aweinspiring. The Atlantic salmon is anadromous, meaning it breeds in freshwater but migrates to sea to feed and grow. Salmon from the south and west of England and Wales, for example, migrate to the west coast of Greenland. Salmon from the north-east migrate to the farthest reaches of the Norwegian Sea.
In those distant and frigid waters, salmon gorge on a feast of capelin, sand eels, small fish and shrimp, growing at a rate that is almost unparalleled in the world of fish. Then, after one year or several, they return to the rivers of their birth, forging upstream over waterfalls with that stout-hearted heroism that so captures our imaginations. Salmo salar – salmon the leaper. At the end of this odyssey they spawn and die; a seemingly pathetic fate after all that effort, until you consider that their decomposing corpses, grown fat with the richness of the sea, fertilise those nursery streams with the nutrients the next generation of salmon needs.
DANGER AT EVERY TURN
Once upon a time, the proto-salmon evolved to take advantage of the abundant food of the sea and the relative safety of freshwater as a place to reproduce. Now, the value that epic migration confers is more ambiguous. The salmon is threatened at all stages of its life cycle and each threat multiplies the risk to the future of the species. Twenty out of the 23 rivers in England that still contain salmon are now judged to be ‘at risk’.
Scientists refer back to the 1960s for a benchmark against which to measure our dwindling populations of salmon. This ground zero is known as ‘pre-fishery abundance’ and dates from a time before the salmon’s feeding grounds in the sea were discovered and pillaged, when there were five times as many salmon in British rivers as there are today.
In truth, the salmon has been under threat since the first millennium, or
even earlier. That 1960s ‘abundance’ is itself a shadow of what once existed. Salmon would once have been present in every British river, but were almost extinct across the breadth of lowland England before the Middle Ages, shut out by mills and pollution. The priest William Harrison was able to say of the River Thames in 1586 that it was so full of “fat and sweet salmons… as no river in Europe was able to exceed it”. Yet Thames salmon were extinct by 1821, wiped out by the filth produced by the Industrial Revolution.
Today, the curse of industrial pollution has, to a large extent, receded, but other, more pernicious threats have replaced it. Diffuse pollution – fertilisers, pesticides and agricultural run-off from soil erosion – has a malignant impact on juvenile salmon in apparently pristine, rural streams. Acid rain too; specifically the reaction of acidified rainwater with pine needles from the conifer plantations that cover large parts of upland Britain, which creates spikes of lethally toxic, acidified river water. Dams, navigations and hydro-schemes continue to shut the door on the migrating adult salmon, something that has been illegal since the 12th century, although the laws have never actually stopped anyone.
FISHING AND FARMING
We discovered the salmon’s oceanic feeding grounds in the late 1950s and, for three decades, fished the hell out of the species, drastically reducing the global population. The impact of netting has diminished in recent years largely thanks to the Herculean efforts of the late, great Orri Vigfússon, an Icelandic entrepreneur and conservationist. During the 1990s, he managed to broker moratoria with salmon fishermen of the Faroe Islands and quota and net buyouts from other fishing fleets in the region. Today, there is very little salmon netting in the North Atlantic and the fishermen have been helped to convert to more sustainable alternative activities.
In fishing’s wake has come a new minotaur: salmon farming. Smoked salmon – once a luxury comparable with caviar – is now ubiquitous and inexpensive, but at massive environmental cost. The salmon farms that dot the sea lochs and estuaries of western Scotland create pestilential plagues of sea lice that have wiped
out or seriously diminished runs of wild salmon (and sea trout) in those places. Although the technology exists to do things differently, salmon are farmed in ways that would never be tolerated in other, more visible forms of agriculture.
As if that weren’t bad enough, one threat – a warming Atlantic – may yet undo our salmon altogether. The temperature of the ocean affects how far the salmon have to travel to find food and how much they find when they get there. When once up to 15% of the young salmon that went to sea survived to return, now that number is more like 4%, and worsening with every passing decade.
SAVE OUR SALMON
In the face of such a decline, is there anything we can do to save the species in Britain? Fortunately, the salmon inspires devotion among rod-and-line fishermen, and they make a small army of conservationists. On the English and Welsh Wye, for example, a band of salmon lovers has in the last decade driven a three-fold increase in the salmon run by knocking down dams, neutralising acidified streams with lime, plus mile after tireless mile of habitat improvements. The best we can do to counter the poor survival at sea is to send as many young fish to sea as possible, at least until mankind finds a way to save itself and the planet from suicide by carbon emissions.
As for the general public, demanding a change to the way salmon are farmed would make a big difference. We should also hold the government to account over its agricultural and fisheries policies. Less soil erosion, less diffuse pollution, better landscape management – these things will all help save the nation’s most ancient resident. Salmon have been present along the south coast of England, which has never been covered by glaciation, since their evolution as a species two million years ago. We ought to make sure they do not disappear under our watch.
A salmon that returns from the sea as a sleekly shaped, silver fish evolves a deep shade of pink with a hooked jaw and humped back as it heads upstream to spawn
ABOVE Fishing for salmon was suggested to be a suitable pursuit for a gentleman, as depicted in The Book of St Albans (1486)
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CLOCKWISE FROM TOP Fish farm cages in the waters of Scalpay on Lewis and Harris; an Atlantic salmon infected with sea lice; fisheries officers check salmon on the River Tyne