People: An Upstream Battle

How a vodka czar is saving the wild salmon

By Kevin Friedl

Orri Vigfússon works hand in hand with the fishing community to protect salmon habitat. Photo courtesy of Randy Ashton.

The wild atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) is only a few sake rolls away from serious trouble. While its range once spanned the North Atlantic from the Hudson River to the coast of Portugal, wild stocks have plummeted due to pollution, indiscriminate dam building, parasites from commercial fish farms, and, in particular, overfishing. In the past 30 years alone, wild-salmon populations have fallen by two thirds, and the species has all but disappeared from some parts of North America.

If the tide has begun to turn recently for the fish, it’s thanks in large part to the dynamism of Orri Vigfússon, Icelandic vodka tycoon, sportfisherman, and dedicated salmon conservationist. Since 1989, Vigfússon and his organization, the North Atlantic Salmon Fund (NASF), have negotiated agreements to protect salmon in the coastal waters of Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, the U.K., Ireland, and Norway through a combination of simple but creative measures. These include buying out commercial fishing licenses, lobbying governments to enforce quotas, and training fishermen to find alternate sources of income. As a result of these efforts, the wild Atlantic salmon population has been growing over the past few years, a change that Vigfússon has seen firsthand while fly-fishing in Iceland’s Big Laxá river (he always releases his catch). Plenty talked to Vigfússon about the salmon’s plight—and comeback.

You’ve always had an intimate connection to the sea, but you weren’t always a conservationist.
When I was growing up, my family had a herring fishery on the northern coast of Iceland. Like most fisheries, we overfished the herring stocks and they collapsed. Maybe that taught me a little bit about how not to manage the salmon stocks.  

Was that when you realized these resources needed to be better managed?
It happened gradually. Having been a sportfisherman, I’ve seen the stocks diminish and in some regions disappear. I decided we had to do something about this. We had to invent new ideas. Commercial netsmen who give up the right to harvest something, they should be properly compensated.

Your approach is more market-based than a lot of traditional conservation strategies. Do you think this has made your organization more effective?

Absolutely. There is no science to my philosophy—it’s simply common sense. Most fisheries in the world are badly managed. If you can give the industries, the stakeholders, a kind of ownership of the resource, they will take much better care of it than in a commercial free-for-all.

Do you worry about other threats to the species?
Many problems are facing the Atlantic salmon, but the salmon-farming industry has been particularly negative. It’s not just the pollution from the fish farms; they also generate a lot of sea lice, which then attack wild salmon stocks. The long-term problem with these salmon farms, though, is that all their escapees go up the rivers and breed with wild salmon, and that may have a very negative long-term genetic effect.

So what can be done about these farming operations?
I would like to see the salmon-farming industry moved ashore. On the coastland, you can at least control it. But instead of expanding into farming everything, we should try to manage the wild stocks properly and kill less of the biomass. If you do that, the salmon will gradually recover.

 1  |  2 

Issue 25

Sign up for Plenty's Weekly Newsletter