Sitting in the heat of the winter desert sun here in the Middle East, my mind turns to the contrast of the season at home, where gales hit the west coast of the British Isles and blizzards assault the moors. The cold waters of rivers and streams cut through dark, cold landscapes, while bare windswept trees frame a leaden sky.
Yet on the banks there are also signs of the arrival of spring in the northern hemisphere, signs in which we can have hope for the year to come: the sprouting shoots of daffodils, the delicate flower heads of snowdrops emerging against all icy and wintry odds.
Such moments in the cycle of nature always instill a sense of optimism and, of course, we need them more than ever this year. We very much hope that the next 12 months will see us come out of this miserable pandemic. But it also has to be the year when nature itself has a chance when degrading natural systems are tackled and revived. Notably the rivers and streams themselves.
From pollution to climate change to overexploitation, the world’s waterways are under attack. And the fate of the Atlantic salmon tells the story.
Many years ago I was fascinated by the white waters of the River Ettrick in the Scottish town of Selkirk. The place was alive with leaping fish, an astonishing sight as salmon migrating from the seas off Greenland and Iceland leapt upstream over the town’s dam by the dozen. Wild fish returned to their native waters to spawn, as they have done for millennia.
But year after year, the number of returning salmon decreases. And in recent years, the decline has been steadily falling. In Scotland, it is estimated that less than 5 percent of salmon return to their rivers, compared with 20 percent 50 years ago. And it is a problem throughout the range of Atlantic salmon, from the United States to Russia.
“In 1985, there were between 8 and 10 million salmon in Atlantic waters and rivers,” said Mark Bilsby of the Atlantic Salmon Trust. “Now we estimate the numbers to be two to three million. They are the proverbial canary in the coal mine, telling us that something is wrong at all in our rivers and seas.
According to North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization, only 14 percent of rivers on both sides of the Atlantic now have sustainable salmon populations. The rest are either at risk or threatened in some way. And 7 percent of the rivers have completely lost their salmon populations.
At the sea
“Most scientists report problems at sea,” said Claire Mercer Nairne, who runs a famous body of salmon fishing water on the River Tay in Perthshire, Scotland.
“Atlantic salmon are born in a river and then migrate to the Norweigan Sea and the waters off southwest Greenland, to become a full-sized adult,” Mercer Nairne told me. “These feeding grounds have been directly affected by climate change and warming oceans.
“New, competing carnivorous species like mackerel are moving north, which not only puts pressure on the availability of food for salmon, but also increases the chances that wild salmon will be caught as bycatch by trawlers.
Problems at sea also highlight the issue of aquaculture, which has had disastrous consequences for wild salmon populations.
Andrew Graham-Stewart is the Director of Salmon and Trout Conservation, Scotland. He said parasitic sea lice emanating from salmon farms have had a deadly impact on wild salmon numbers in the western highlands and islands of Scotland. Parasites cling to fish and kill them before they even have a chance to reach the ocean. In Scotland there are now over 200 fish farms, which produce over 150,000 tonnes of salmon per year.
“We desperately need the Scottish government to make wild salmon a top political priority,” Graham-Stewart said. “Successive Scottish governments have failed in this regard, not least in their unwavering support – regardless of the environmental consequences – for the expansion of the salmon farming industry.
Graham-Stewart also stressed the need to address the factors limiting the number of juvenile salmon migrating from one river to another. “These include chemical and other pollution from agriculture and forestry, as well as the impact of dams that prohibit or limit access of adult salmon to large areas of spawning habitat. “
In the UK, there is now a coordinated effort to save Atlantic salmon. The Missing Salmon Alliance brings together all the major salmon conservation organizations to fight to save fish.
“The idea of the Alliance is to restore salmon numbers, stabilize and reverse the decline,” said Mark Bilsby of the Atlantic Salmon Trust. “We have to work together and pool resources to get the job done.”
Young salmon called smolts are tagged in Scottish rivers and are then tracked to better understand where, when and how they go extinct, in order to identify how best to deal with them.
Wonder of nature
The life of the migrating salmon is one of the natural wonders of the world and for Mercer Nairne, this badge of honor could be part of the solution.
“I would say the best thing we can do to help wild salmon is to make it popular, to make it popular with the general public, just like seals and dolphins. There is nothing more majestic than the king of fish who braves treacherous waterfalls to return home, ”she said.
“I can see the Scottish Wild Salmon being part of the tourist trail, as well as the Scottish Wildcat. It is an iconic species that is part of the British heritage. “
From tourism to the table, there is no doubt about the intrinsic value of Atlantic salmon. But a return to something akin to the natural abundance of our rivers and streams would be an invaluable return for this extraordinary and dangerously endangered fish.
Overview of your environment
1. The hottest decade: Some key climate groups, as well as NASA, put last year on par with 2016 as the hottest year on record. the “Exceptionally hot” 2020 also helped solidify the past decade as the hottest on record.
2. Can the northern white rhino be saved ?: With only two animals remaining, and the species declared extinct in the wild in 2008, scientists are looking for hope in stem cell research.
3. Reversing Trump’s Monumental Changes: Two Utah National Monuments – Bears Ears and Grand-Staircase Escalante – have been significantly reduced under President Donald Trump, paving the way for resource extraction. But the Joe Biden administration should reverse this.
4. No vaccine against climate change: The world has fallen behind in adapting to climate change, a new UN report said, while the COVID-19 pandemic has also pushed the climate crisis down the priority list for most countries.
The last word
The majestic wild Atlantic salmon is a powerful symbol of the health of our rivers and oceans, and of our relationship with the natural environment that supports all human activity … When all is well with salmon, all is well with the world !