Current state and the future of Atlantic Salmon

Current state and the future of Atlantic Salmon

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This article was published in "Top Salmon Flies" 2017. After a record dry and warm summer, we wanted to publish it again.

There has been a lot of talk about the current state and future of Atlantic salmon . Each and every angler contributing to this book shared their concerns of declining fish stocks, but they also had hope for the future . I interviewed Jaakko Erkinaro, a research professor in Natural Resources Institute of Finland . Professor Erkinaro has been a memberof the International Council for the Exploration of the Searesearch for over 15 years . The organization provides scientific advice to NASCO (the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization) . NASCO aims to contribute to the conservation, restoration, enhancement and rational management of salmon stocks taking into accountthe best available scientific information . Professor Erkinaro is also a member of International Atlantic Salmon Research Board of NASCO and Arctic Council’s freshwater biodiversity expert groups and the Finnish- Norwegian group monitoring the River Tana salmon populations He is an expert in salmonids and wild and free river systems.

atlantic salmon picture: Pasi Visakivi

Photo: courtesy of Pasi Visakivi

According to Professor Erkinaro the global situation of Atlantic salmon varies territorially, but the general trend is negative . »Fish stocks are declining and sea fishing in Atlantic Ocean is almost over excluding Norwegian coastline. The British Isles and France and Spain have the biggest problems in Europe, but there are especially serious problems occurring in the North West Atlantic. Large rivers in New England are already suffering from high water temperature making survival circumstances for Atlantic salmon extremely difficult. The unexplained changes in the ocean’s ecosystem have caused problems with juvenile salmon heading for their first feeding migration to the ocean. The number of salmon returning from their ocean migration has dropped dramatically on many rivers, including the famous Miramachi in New Brunswick, Canada. Salmon stocks are in better shape in Northern parts of the world. Northern Norway and rivers in Kola Peninsula for example, have had great number of fish returning to the rivers for many years. This is most likely due to active conservation and suitable environmental factors in the Arctic Ocean. The building of fish ladders few decades ago has increased the potential spawning grounds for salmon in some rivers in Northern Norway. Today this shows as increase in fish numbers and catch rates.

The research work for salmon conservation is often complicated requiring large amounts of time, work, right equipment and most importantly the right methods to conduct the research. For example Tana, large salmon river and border river between Norway and Finland is a unique and challenging environment for scientific research and monitoring. There are ca. 30 genetically different salmon stocks in Tana, due to number of tributaries running into Tana. The biggest threat for the future of Atlantic salmon in Tana is the mixed stock fishing. It is nearly impossible to identify and control on which of the 30 different salmon stocks our fishing is concentrated on. Worst-case scenario is that one of the small tributaries gets a big hit from uncontrolled fishing occurring in the main river. We need to conduct extensive research in order for us to understand the unique characteristics and behaviour of each of the 30 salmon stocks. Researchers already know for example that the large salmon entering the river early in the season are mostly from tributaries located in the headwaters, which have remote access and large spawning areas. Sadly, these fish have to fight their way for over 250km starting from the Tana fjord. They need to dodge commercial fishing, net fishing in the river and recreational anglers. One of the key points in the new suggestions has been to provide safer passage for these large early season fish to reach their destination and to make sure that they are able to spawn.

atlantic salmon photo: siggi haugur

Photo: courtesy of Siggi Haugur

A big female salmon, around 10 kilos, produces more than 10 000 eggs when spawning so they have tremendous value for the conservation of fish stocks. After the eggs have been fertilized they hatch, and the emerging juveniles are first called fry, which later develop into juvenile stage called parr. These juvenile salmon usually head for their ocean migration after living in the fresh water river for 1 to 3 years. Tana is unique in this perspective as well. After a spawning and emerging, the juvenile salmon can spend from 2 to 8 years in the river before starting their ocean migration. And they can spend from 1 to 5 years in the ocean, gaining size and age. Therefore a single spawning event can produce salmon returning to spawn for over a ten-year period. There are ca. 120 different life cycle combinations in the Tana salmon population complex, including varying juvenile years, sea ages and previous spawning times. Most commonly the salmon spend a year on their ocean migration and return to spawn to the river as grilse, a one-sea-winter salmon (1SW). Some – if surviving the spawning – return to spend another year in the ocean and return back to the river for second spawning. Females are the most common repeat spawners, but the largest salmon returning to Tana are males and returning for their first spawning visit after spending five years in the ocean - unlike the common conception that these fish are repeat spawners.

Despite that there are dark clouds on the sky there has been some success stories where human actions have proved to be effective in short period of time. One of the greatest stories is without a doubt the rise of salmon stocks
in the Baltic sea and especially
in the River Tornionjoki. The Baltic suffered from excessive commercial sea fishing during the 80’s and 90’s. Finnish government kept the salmon stocks alive with massive stocking of fish. The situation improved in the mid 90’s thanks to wise administrative decisions and some luck. In 1996 Finnish Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry introduced a time specific fishing zone system for the coastal fishing based on evaluations where commercial fishing was allowed to start after 50 % of the estimated salmon runs had passed the commercial fishing areas. Coastal fishing areas were divided into fishing zones from south to north and the commercial fishing was allowed to begin on later dates the closer the fishing zone was to the bottom of the Bay of Bothnia, and e.g. the River Tornionjoki. The results were immediate already during the first year with massive runs of salmon in River Tornionjoki and hit the all time high during 1997. The catch rates fluctuated quite much during following years but the number of juvenile salmon kept rising steadily. Drift nets were banned in 2008 in the name of a small whale, the harbour porpoise. Drift nets were quickly changed to drift lines by mostly Polish commercial fishing vessels and the commercial fishing was almost out of control for a few years. Finally the European Union set strict restrictions to drift line fishing resulting in major decrease in commercial fishing and tremendous increase in number of salmon rising to River Tornionjoki. Starting from late 80’s the number of salmon migrating to Torneå river has risen from almost zero to over 100 000 salmon. Atlantic salmon is a reactive species, which means that when humans can make improvements on the salmon habitat or regulate the fishing in reasonable manners, the results are immediately visible– the environmental conditions permitting, of course.

Global warming is causing serious problems already in many rivers, making the water temperatures too high for Atlantic salmon. Too fast warming of rivers in early spring causes the salmon smolt to start their migration prematurely to oceans where the water temperatures possibly are still cold, causing a mismatch of environments, and likely decreasing survival of smolts in the ocean. Global warming is not the only problem. Fish farming business is blooming especially in southern and central Norway. Farmed salmon cause many potential threats to wild Atlantic salmon. Farmed salmon form tens of per cents of the whole population in some rivers in e.g. Norway. This will result to deterioration of the genetic qualities of the wild salmon stock. There is uncertainty related to farmed salmon carrying diseases, but there is yet no scientific evidence of potential epidemic threat to wild salmon.» What we can do as individual anglers and conservationists? We have the right and responsibility to ensure safe future for the Atlantic salmon . We need to make sure that we do not even unintentionally danger salmon with Gyrodactylus salaris, a parasite, which can wipe out an entire population on any river . The disinfection of fishing gear is already mandatory on many rivers, but some anglers don’t seem to realize the importance of the procedure and neglect it . Researchers provide scientific evidence for regulations so that the fishing would be based on sustainable level . Salmon anglers can contribute to healthy salmon stocks by either practising catch & release fishing or being selective on fish that they kill . Large females are extremely valuable fish and should be returned to river . Global warming and governmental policies are issues that might seem overwhelming, but taking one right step at a time we can make a difference together .

As a father of two little boys, I would like nothing better, than leaving behind a legacy where they would have the same possibility to enjoy nature and hopefully salmon fishing as we have been able to.