The return of wild salmon

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Europe’s migratory freshwater fish population has fallen by 93% over the past fifty years. According to a report by a coalition of environmental organizations, including the World Fish Migration Foundation and the World Wide Fund for Nature, it is the highest population decline in the world.

Around one third of freshwater species are endangered because of environmental and anthropogenic pressures such as climate change, freshwater pollution, overfishing and building of dams for hydropower. Migratory fish are the most threatened within that group.

Migratory fish, such as salmon, trout and Amazonian catfish, are vital to meet the food security needs, as well as for supporting the livelihoods of millions of people around the world. They also play a critical role in keeping our rivers, lakes and wetlands healthy by supporting a complex food web.

60% of rivers, lakes, streams and wetlands in the European Union are currently in bad ecological shape (European Environment Agency, 2021). One of the main reasons for this is the huge amount of dams, weirs and barriers in Europe, which are usually built for the purposes of hydropower and flood defence.

Europe has the most obstructed river landscape on the planet, with at least one million barriers in operation. Migratory fish are species with old habits; many have been using the same migratory routes for centuries, and therefore the rapid changes of river environments impact them significantly.

The newly introduced EU’s 2030 biodiversity strategy, a key pillar of the European Green Deal, has a dedicated target to restore at least 25,000 km of rivers into original free flowing state.

“A key element of this plan is to remove or modify obsolete barriers and dams in rivers, which can impede the movement of migratory fish, alter water flows, and impact the movement of sediments and nutrients along river networks.”

Legislative changes on all policy levels are necessary to allow populations of migratory fish to bounce back. Given the alarming numbers, it is essential to act soon, before the populations will reach a point where recovery is impossible.

A good practice from Sweden, presented as part of the WLE project, shows an approach that has led to a successful restoration of the salmon population in their rivers.

The adventurous journey of a salmon

In the northern part of Sweden lies the Norrbotten county. Despite being the country’s biggest county, covering almost 25% of Sweden, the area is sparsely populated but has a valuable natural environment. Since it is home to the few remaining salmon rivers in the Baltic area, it is often called “the salmon country” and this endangered species is an important part of the local people’s identity.

For many decades now, salmon have been in decline, almost on the verge of extinction. The main reason for the decline in Sweden was hydrodams, biotope degradation and poor management of fisheries. After hatching, salmon stay in the river for three to five years before starting their long journey to the south of the Baltic sea, traveling up to 2000 km.

It really is an adventure to be a salmon”, says Dan Blomkvist, a senior fisheries officer of the Norrbotten county.

We were successful with rebuilding of genetically unique salmon stocks, but it took a lot of time. One generation of salmon is seven to eight years, so it takes time to rebuild the stock. The Torne river is now the most productive river with Atlantic salmon in the world, which has a positive impact on the whole region in both Norrbotten and northern Finland”, explains Blomkvist.

You can't do it alone

Preparing the path for salmon’s return was not an easy task and legislative changes were key for its success. Because of salmon’s life cycle, the changes in fishery management needed to be done on an international level.

“Sweden decided to stop fishing salmon in the Baltic Sea and all Swedish fisheries moved to the coast, closer to the river. Finland took the same approach” remembers Blomkvist. The biggest and most recent achievement was when the European Commission stopped salmon fishing in the Baltic altogether and essentially forbid mixed stock fishing.

Poaching control became an important part of the management. “These days, salmon management in the Baltics is a good example of improved fishery management, because it is to a higher degree easing the fishing pressure on specific stocks,” explains Blomkvist.

River restoration is as important as management of fisheries. “Our rivers may seem pristine at first sight, but they have often been modified for timber logging,” says Blomkvist. Dislocation of rocks removes the substrate, flattening the riverbed, making it less diverse for fish and vertebrates. Fortunately there is significant financial support for restoration projects available from both national and European funds.

Economic value of natural resources

There were several factors why the salmon rebuilding project was given a high priority. One of them was to sustain the regional economy: “we knew that we have to build fish stocks first, let the salmon come to the rivers and then we can create a sustainable management and start fishing” explains Blomkvist.

The environmental and social aspects were no less important and the regional authorities believed they could not only bring the salmon back, but to manage it sustainably. Sustainable salmon fishing management is crucial to ensure both economic and environmental sustainability.

But how does one measure the economic value of a natural resource? First, authorities have several tools to collect data: fish counters in the rivers, to know what goes in and out, local management in place to see how much is caught and how much is killed, as well as monitoring sold fishing licenses.

In addition, they have questionnaires for businesses that relate to fishing tourism, which they can put in correlation with the salmon data.

It is not complicated in theory, but the fishing rights are privately owned, so it always comes down to local engagement. Communities in some parts of the river work excellent, others are not as engaged. The different areas and villages on the rivers are given the tools and can report, but there is no legislation that would force them to,” clarifies Blomkvist.

Salmon in the Råne river was almost extinct forty years ago. Up to 4000 salmon ascend the river yearly today and the number is growing.” Salmon from the photo was released back into the river.

To ensure that salmon populations stay healthy, there is no commercial fishing in the wild rivers. According to the data, the killing rate in some rivers was less than 1%. “The value for the fishing tourism is that the salmon is alive and in the river. We now have close to five times the previously estimated maximal capacity of fish counted as migrating salmon smolts”, says Blomkvist.

Having salmon in the rivers does not only benefit fishing tourism but the whole regional economy and local ecosystem. Returning salmon are spawning in smaller tributaries that were previously not recognised as salmon habitats. They are also pushing further up in the river systems sometimes passing waterfalls that previously were considered natural migration barriers.

Greatly increased numbers of salmon parr provide a base for growing otter populations and revival of the entire boreal river ecosystem.“What I have learned and could pass on is that you have to be realistic about the time frame, depending on the system you are working with. It feels like it is taking a lot of time, but then you look back and you see there is a real positive change in the nature around you.

You need to have your foot on the ground and get the local population to understand and support the initiative and in exchange provide support to the local organisations and motivate them to be active. You work with a biological system, which doesn’t react that fast and with a political system, which doesn’t react that fast either, so it is important to stay motivated”, reflects Blomkvist.

But then in mid-summer, you can see thousands of salmon coming back to the rivers and you know it was worth it. It is really beautiful; you should come visit and see for yourself,” concludes Blomkvist with a smile.

For more inspiration:

  • See the good practice on ‘Wild salmon grow the economy’
  • See the WLE Interreg Europe project
  • Explore other restoration projects in the area in the Reborn and Remibar projects
  • Explore the SALMUS project
  • Read the article about LIFE Revives
  • See the fishing information that the County administrative board developed for the mountainous western part of Sweden:
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