Fight to save salmon from extinction wins top environmental award

An Icelandic businessman, fighting to save the Atlantic salmon from extinction, has been awarded the world’s largest environmental prize for grassroots activists.

Orri VigfussonOrri Vigfússon, (64), from Reykjavik, Iceland, is one of six recipients of the international Goldman Environmental Prize awarded for his 17-year campaign to protect North Atlantic wild salmon. Since Vigfússon founded the North Atlantic Salmon Fund1, commercial open-sea fishing in the Atlantic has fallen by over 75 per cent, and more than five million North Atlantic salmon have been saved. To build on this success, Vigfússon is now calling on Scotland and Norway to end commercial net fishing for Atlantic salmon.

Vigfússon’s pioneering work to end commercial salmon fishing in the North Atlantic began in the late 1980s when, as a keen sports fisherman, he realised that wild salmon populations had dwindled to dangerously low levels: threatened by commercial driftnet fishing, salmon catches in the Atlantic fell from over 4 million to 700,000 fish between 1979 and 1999. Vigfússon recognised that this massive decline in salmon not only affected the sensitive ocean and river ecosystems, but also the rural communities which depended upon them for income.

The problems for salmon began in the 1950s and 1960s when commercial fishermen discovered that not only European salmon but also salmon from the US and Canada congregated in the sea around Greenland and the Faroe Isles. Huge commercial fisheries sprang up and thousands of mile of driftnets were laid across the sea routes that salmon used on their way to and from the rivers of their birth. As a result, salmon catches soared and then collapsed, the decline steepened and the impact spread: anglers’ salmon catches crashed, as did angling tourism on which many remote communities depend.

To fight against the over-exploitation of wild salmon and to protect communities from economic ruin, Vigfússon set up the Iceland-based North Atlantic Salmon Fund (NASF) and he began his innovative approach to saving the salmon from extinction. Vigfússon’s idea was simple – to pay licensed netsmen not to catch salmon. Anglers and conservationists from North America and Europe supported this approach with millions of dollars going into the North Atlantic Salmon Fund. By raising US $35 million, Vigfússon has been able to buy the netting rights from commercial fishermen in numerous countries, including Greenland, the Faroe Isles and many other countries in Europe. In return, fishermen receive financial compensation and new types of jobs either in sustainable fisheries (like lumpfish or snow crab harvesting) or in a revived angling-tourism industry. Vigfússon has prompted multi-million dollar buyouts and moratorium agreements with several national governments, most recently with the Irish government (January 2007) but also with England and Wales. In some cases, as with the UK, national governments have contributed millions to buyout schemes.

"Orri negotiated the cessation of salmon fishing in Iceland, Greenland and the Faroes – the breeding grounds of North Atlantic salmon – he negotiated the moratorium, and he arranged the financing alternatives as well. Massive is the word for that agreement." Brian Marshall, chairman of Britain’s Wessex Salmon and Rivers Trust.

The NASF’s latest victory in Ireland was particularly hard won: Ireland resisted any moves to negotiate a driftnet ban because the nets were harvesting fish that had been saved by the buyouts established in northern waters. To prompt the Irish moratorium, NASF and their partners claimed that Ireland was in contravention of the UN Law of the Sea and the EU Habitats Directive by continuing to use driftnets, and the EU threatened the Irish government with prosecution unless it introduced a ban. Ireland finally bowed to international pressure and ended industrial salmon driftnet fishing off its coasts. As part of the buyout, the Irish government will establish a hardship fund of more than US $39 million to address the financial losses that Irish salmon fishers face, as well as providing an additional US $7 million to help rural communities deal with their loss of income. This ban shuts down a fishery off Ireland’s west coast that at one time was taking up to half a million salmon a year, heading not only for Ireland’s rivers but for rivers in Britain, France, and Spain. It will relieve the stresses on salmon that have brought populations in some rivers to the point of extinction.

"Without Orri’s determination, his ability to talk to the state department and ministers in Washington and to European officials, and to address very large gatherings of netsmen, there would be little hope of recovery of this remarkable species of fish. He has come to be seen by a lot of people as a patron saint of the salmon." Roger Harrison, former chief executive, Observer newspaper.

But the battle to protect the North Atlantic salmon is not over. Vigfússon and the NASF have offered to support the Irish government and there is now an urgent need to ensure that Ireland’s ban on driftnets is properly policed, that driftnets are not replaced by draft nets, and that the waterways are now managed effectively. Vigfússon is also calling on Scotland and Norway to follow their European neighbours and to end commercial net fishing for salmon.

Commercial salmon fishing is a truly global environmental issue: for example over-fishing in Greenland would affect the health of salmon populations in Canada, Iceland, Scotland, England, Sweden, and Norway, demonstrating that protecting wild salmon in the open sea is an intrinsically international concern. "Orri and the NASF campaign go far beyond fishing. Theirs is a global conservation effort to protect an endangered species." Charles Clover, Environment Editor, The Daily Telegraph.

Vigfússon’s aim to halt commercial salmon fishing in the North Atlantic is within reach: he is currently negotiating with individual governments to ensure that policy making and economic decisions influence fishing practices, working to end mixed stock salmon netting in Norway and Scotland, and building a global network of young people to advocate for the protection of salmon and other threatened fish species globally.

Vigfússon believes that the NASF can restore the Atlantic salmon to its abundance by ending indiscriminate coastal net fishing in the open seas and coastal areas. In its place he wants to establish "in-river" management protection, promoting lucrative sport fishing that he says not only revitalises rural economies but creates surplus revenues for compensating driftnet fishers.

Vigfússon is a new kind of environmental champion - an entrepreneur who combines business skills with fundraising and negotiating at a senior level to protect the environment. He is the first businessman to be awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize and, as such, he represents a new breed of environmental leader. "Vigfússon is tireless. He really is unrivalled. He has focused on one species, and he’s chosen this animal that he loves. And he represents that creature in the world. He stands up for its survival and is making a huge difference." Bill McDonough, US architect and sustainable urban planner; author of Cradle to Cradle.

Established in 1990, the Goldman Environmental Prize is awarded each year to environmental heroes from six continental regions. Endorsed by more than 100 Heads of State and often referred to as the Nobel Prize for the environment, the Prize rewards grassroots leaders for their outstanding work in protecting the environment and campaigning to preserve vulnerable natural habitats. Frequently described as voices in the wilderness, Goldman Prize winners have often taken great personal risks. The 2007 Goldman Environmental Prize of US $750,000 (shared equally between the six winners) will be presented in San Francisco on 23 April 2007.

publication date: Apr 23, 2007 by

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