Among today's winners of the 2007 Goldman Environmental Prize is an entrepreneur whose novel methods and sheer persistence has saved some five million North Atlantic wild salmon... and helped ensure the future of this magnificent but endangered species.
Salmon populations on the west coast have been in serious decline as well, though this is not the case in Alaska or British Columbia, where salmon still thrive in abundance.
In fact, west coast salmon are in much better shape than Atlantic salmon: a succulent species that’s very different from its Pacific salmon cousins: Sockeye, Silver, King, Chum, and Pink.
(Farmed Atlantic salmon bear little nutritional or culinary resemblance to their firm, flavorful wild counterparts.)
Thanks to human impacts on the closely entwined ocean and river ecosystems of the North Atlantic rim, the teeming wild salmon schools that roamed in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic have dwindled to dangerously low levels.
New England rivers from Connecticut to Maine once supported thriving runs of wild Atlantic salmon, but the only remaining wild Atlantic salmon populations in the US live in eight rivers in Maine and have been listed as endangered since 2000.
Atlantic salmon fight extinction… with entrepreneurial aid
Orri Vigfússon, a 64-year-old Icelander, turned his business savvy and an unwavering commitment to work on a novel plan to reverse the near-extinction of wild Atlantic salmon.
And his persistent, heroic efforts were recognized today when he was presented the $125,000 Goldman Environmental Prize… the largest award of its kind in the world.
Now in its 18th year, the Goldman prize is awarded annually to six grassroots environmental heroes. The winners were awarded the Prize today in a ceremony at the San Francisco Opera House.
In the early 1990s Orri Vigfússon had the idea of buying out the fishing rights of commercial salmon fishers, whose over-fishing was causing the decline.
Vigfússon used his negotiating skills to protect this precious resource in a practical, effective way. Through his work, he’s succeeded in preventing the seemingly inevitable destruction of wild Atlantic salmon.
As he said, “Last year most countries on both sides of the Atlantic had their best salmon runs for 20 or 30 years. Because we have shown that we know how to restore salmon stocks we enjoy excellent partnerships with several governments who provide matching funds for our projects.”
Thanks to the non-profit that Vigfússon founded and chairs—the North Atlantic Salmon Fund (NASF)—Atlantic salmon are now protected from commercial exploitation throughout its feeding grounds in the seas off Greenland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands and enjoys similar protection off the shores of Canada, England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Recently, the NASF brokered agreements to buy out the remaining drift nets, in partnership with the UK and Northern Ireland governments.
As part of the buyout, the Irish government will establish a hardship fund of more than $39 million to address the financial losses Irish salmon fishers will face, and is providing an additional $7 million to help affected rural communities.
Five million salmon saved
Since 1989 the organization has raised $35 million to buy netting rights from commercial fishers across the North Atlantic. In essence, NASF pays commercial fishermen not to fish salmon in the North Atlantic.
Vigfússon's NASF also brokered moratoriums with several national governments, which have improved salmon fish stocks in several countries dramatically.
The NASF estimates that commercial open-sea fishing in the Atlantic has dropped by more than 75 percent in the last 15 years, saving in excess of five million North Atlantic salmon. Meanwhile, river anglers in several countries have reported substantial increases in salmon catches.
To ensure the sustainability of these efforts, Vigfússon promotes viable economic alternatives for salmon fishers, such as harvesting snow crab and lumpfish caviar.
Salmon-saving project marked by holistic aims
|Oregon salmon win a reprieve|
The Klamath River was once the third most productive salmon-river system in the United States. But habitat-blocking dams, poor water quality, and too little water, have reduced salmon runs to less than 10 percent of their historic size, with silver (Coho) salmon in the Klamath River now listed as endangered.
Fortunately, a March 28, 2007 ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling that required the federal government to maintain bare minimum flows to keep salmon alive in the Klamath River. But much remains to be done, including removals of water-warming, flow-reducing dams and allocation of water flows between farmers and fishermen.
We’ll cover this story in more depth in future articles on the west coast salmon situation.
Orri Vigfússon first became aware of declining salmon stocks in the 1970s while fishing along the rivers of his native northern Iceland.
“My objective is to restore the abundance of wild salmon that formerly existed on both sides of the North Atlantic. This can only be achieved by safeguarding the fish at sea. If the numbers of salmon and many other species of fish are to be rebuilt, we must also protect the whole marine food chain.”
Vigfússon started by meeting with river communities and local anglers impacted by disappearance of river salmon. And he began talking to commercial salmon fishers about the environmental and economic problems caused by dramatic declines in Atlantic salmon populations... primarily, the impending loss of their own livelihoods.
After raising grassroots support, Vigfússon approached governments with his idea of the buyout agreements.
Vigfússon has since brokered multi-million dollar buyouts or moratorium agreements with commercial salmon fishers in the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Wales, England, Greenland, France and Norway.
But these hard-won successes represent just one of the final steps toward securing a complete halt to salmon fishing at sea in the North Atlantic. Vigfússon is now focused on the remaining coastal nets in Scotland and Norway, the last countries to operate major mixed-stock fisheries that prevent many returning salmon from reaching their native rivers.
The governments in both countries have been slow to act and face significant negative impacts to the salmon stocks on their local rivers.
Help the salmon helpers
We couldn’t be more impressed by Mr. Vigfússon’s efforts, and applaud the decision of the Goldman Environmental Prize to make him one of its 2007 honorees.
We encourage you to support NASF, which is almost a one-man show.
As he says, “We spend very little money on our administration. NASF employs only one secretary. Everyone else gives his or her services voluntarily. We spend the cash we raise on ensuring no netsman loses money by stopping salmon fishing.”
We think it's vital to save threatened wild salmon wherever they still survive. And endangered Atlantic salmon are a unique, irreplacable species that certainly needs saving.
To help, go to www.nasfonline.org/donations.htm.