Goldman Environmental Prize Winner Orri Vigfússon on Saving Global Salmon Stocks

This is the first in a series of interviews with previous winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize. Founded in 1990, the prize is given annually to six grassroots environmentalists working for change around the globe. This year's prize winners will be announced on April 14.

Orri Vigfússon's no-nonsense North Atlantic Salmon Fund is focused on an incredibly complicated, yet startlingly simple goal: to restore wild Atlantic salmon stocks to "historic levels" of abundance in all of their traditional North Atlantic river and ocean habitats. NASF's simple solution is to pay commercial fisherman not to fish. Convincing them (and their politicians) and raising the funds to make sure they don't lose money by not fishing, however, is a bit more complicated.Back in the 1950s, scientists discovered that Atlantic salmon from rivers in the U.S., Canada, and Europe migrate to an area of West Greenland to feed. Almost overnight, a huge commercial-fishing free-for-all got going, taking massive amounts of salmon in drift nets. As he describes it, Orri Vigfússon comes from an "old herring family" full of fishermen, but it was his wife who introduced him to rod salmon fishing. Unfortunately, not long after he took up the sport, commercial catch numbers started crashing, and anglers noticed fewer salmon coming back to their rivers and streams.

In 1989, Vigfússon decided the key was to stop what is called the "mixed-stock" fishery--that is, the drift-netting of salmon at sea--in order to protect the fish during their migrations. Vigfússon formed NASF and started his efforts on Faroe Island fisherman; getting an agreement took lots of ground work and many months of actual negotiations. Vigfússon was clear that fishermen needed generous compensation, as well as help finding or creating new livelihoods. Today, he has raised millions of dollars, mostly from generous fellow anglers, and has agreements with fisherman in many of the nations of Northern Europe. It is estimated that he's saved millions of salmon, too. He's also received two knighthoods and a score of environmental prizes including the 2007 Goldman Prize, which lauds the efforts of grassroots environmentalists worldwide who work to protect the world natural resources. A clear-viewed businessman who also runs the ICY Vodka company, Vigfússon has crafted an even larger vision for the future of salmon restoration. In this interview, he discusses catch-and-release, commercial fisheries solutions, and why biological research should be replaced with plain-old common sense. His simple salmon-saving mantra? Kill fewer fish.

TreeHugger: Where would you say your efforts stand right now?

Orri Vigfússon: Well, we still have drift netters, in the northern islands, and we have in-fjord netters in Norway, coastal netters in Scotland, draft netters in the Irish Republic, and now we're addressing all of these. I tried to set my priorities and apply my funds judiciously, starting with the high seas; it was there that we were able to save the largest number of salmon. I think NASF respects that fishermen have historic rights to take these fish. So we had to be generous, and think not only of the sustainability of stocks, but also the economic health of communities, and helping fishermen find other opportunities. For example, we helped develop the snowcrab and lumpfish caviar roe industries in Greenland. But there's no point in protecting the salmon in their ocean feeding grounds if they are going to be intercepted in nets along the coasts of Scotland, Ireland, and in Norwegian fjords.

And is it possible to buy out those remaining nets?

OV: Yes. And I would say we are three-quarters of the way to our goal. I would like to clean everything up in the next two to three years. We have promoted catch and release in the rivers but I still think most rivers need more spawning stock--they are still below safe biological levels. If we look at Baltic salmon, for example, we can see that the Swedes are killing all the salmon they catch. But take a look at my mother river, the Selá, where we've really built up the stocks, practicing 70-80 percent catch and release. Why not do this, for 5, 10, 20 years [in Sweden] to grow the salmon stocks? Wild salmon...there's nothing like it. There must be nearly 2,500 rivers with Atlantic salmon, and I'll guarantee 99 percent of them need more spawning stock.

TH: Why do you think conservation efforts like catch and release do or don't work?

OV: Well, in the case of salmon, basically anglers want to take home their catch. And they say, "Well, I'll only take a little bit." But then everyone points to everyone else. I just think that it really has to start with yourself.

TH: How will climate change effect wild Atlantic salmon conservation?

OV: The answer is that we don't fully know. It is going to change the geography of a lot of rivers, but it's complicated, some rivers will benefit while others might see negative effects. It's hard to calculate or accurately predict which will be the winners and which the losers.

TH: Can you see your efforts extending to other threatened fish?

OV: Cod is very interesting. Basically, we are killing too many fish and we've been doing it for far too long. Governments spend billions on research to find out if there's something else to do, when the most important thing to do is to stop killing so many fish. The rule of thumb is to never kill more than 20 percent of the biomass--but nobody's abiding by that. So every year many scientists say no fish should be killed, and governments keep giving out quotas for far above that 20 percent rule.

TH: Tell us about your future plans.

OV: It's difficult to raise millions of dollars on a yearly basis. So we've decided that from 2009 to 2012 we'll try to put together an amount of money for a capital fund. I figure we've got to raise $25-30 million. We've really got to get private people involved, and we're looking at how to do that through the Internet.

I've been in this game for twenty years. Asking the average angler to contribute...they really don't want to. Most of the $40 million I've raised so far has been from generous, big private donors. To keep up with my commitments I've got to raise $30,000 to $40,000 per week, so I have to find the right way to approach the average angler.

My plan is to set up a longterm structure. What I believe is that all fisheries should be run by the private sector, with the government setting the rules. All the salmon, for example, should be covered by commercial agreements. People respect commercial agreements, not inter-governmental resolutions. If you give individuals the rights--fair rights--they will take care of the resource. Of course, the quotas need to be fairly divided. And then, I would have quotas transferable, with the ability to buy and sell quotas. This concept of managing fisheries is gaining ground all over the world.

TH: What else are you working on right now?

OV: Norway. We've been running a campaign in Norway in the last few weeks. Salmon catches in Norway are at historic lows. Salmon are being decimated by all kinds of exploitation and pollution and the negative effects of salmon farming. Norway's Storting [parliament] had agreed to stop mixed stock fishing, to phase it out. But it remains to be seen if they will.

TH: What makes you most hopeful in what you do, and also what discourages you?

OV: I'm constantly meeting people who get it, who see it is possible to do this. I'm encouraged by them. The most discouraging is the civil servants and politicians who are short-sighted and don't get the big picture.

TH: How did you get the big picture?

OV: When I started angling I read the angling books of the time, which were really poetic texts dedicated to the sport. Then in 1989 I really had the big moment, when I saw the solution to dwindling salmon. It was the cheapest way to do things: to pay fishermen not to fish. I feel I have a duty to commercial fishermen; 50 or 100 years from now, I want the great-great-grandchildren of today's fishermen to say that this was a good thing, what we did. Of course, there's other things that have to be done, restoring the dead rivers in Europe, making sure that we've restored the habitat of the entire life-cycle of salmon. But it really shouldn't take that long. We don't need more useless research into useless bio-details. People have been excusing themselves for a long time by pouring money into useless research projects, when there's really no magic. It's just common sense. Stop killing so many fish, clean up the rivers, and the salmon come back.

Tags: Conservation | Fish | Fishing | Goldman Environmental Prize | TH Interview

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