Orri Vigfússon – words in action.

Dreamstore has been pleased in the past to support the North Atlantic Salmon Fund (NASF) in its central mission; helping towards the buying of commercial nets to reduce the impact of commercial harvesting on migrating salmon stocks. This remains an essential action in the conservation of the species.

Orri Vigfússon was an indefatigable campaigner for the North Atlantic salmon, and the driving force behind the North Atlantic Salmon Fund’s nets purchase programme, and much besides. It was with great sadness that we learned of his passing in July 2017.

The key objectives of the North Atlantic Salmon Fund that Orri founded over 25 years ago are to restore salmon stocks to historic abundance, to bring more diversity and ensure a profitable sport fishery within river catchments.

Commercial net buyouts were at the foundation of the NASF. Orri set the Fund’s priorities as promoting authentic conservation and respecting historic rights of the netsmen, working with the netsmen to make the North Atlantic environment a showcase example of collaborative action in securing bio-diversity and sustainable development.

Earlier in May, Orri asked The Grassy Creek Foundation, with which he had started the East Machias project in the USA, to look at the future of funding the North Altantic Salmon Fund and its work.

It is good to learn that the two conservation projects that Orri was driving over the last five years – one in the US (East Machias hatchery), and the other the Faroese and Greenlandic net buyout agreements, remain in place with funding and focused management built on the network of NASF regional chapters and partnerships.

The Grassy Creek Foundation has successfully assured the hugely challenging East Marchias programme is being taken forward to the next level by the local river association and some dedicated funders.  The Faroese and Greenlandic net buyout agreements will continue to be funded with new capital campaigns to ensure sustainability of this longstanding effort.

Great news, and a great tribute to Orri’s life’s mission. Yet this was only part of Orri’s work. Orri knew that it was not enough to simply focus on one single aspect of what might assist the recovery of salmon stocks to assure a sustainable harvest.

Orri’s passion and commitment to the North Atlantic Salmon was dual: action in buying out the nets, and as an unrelenting voice for the species in speaking to all threats to its survival.

Orri’s voice heard loudly beyond net buyout agreements.

Earlier this year the North Atlantic Salmon Fund announcement about success in Norway, with a halt to further development of open sea salmon farms until problems facing the industry were solved, was very welcome; though sadly, also the final international win for Orri.

Clearly there is an economic factor at work in Norsk Industri’s decision, noted by the NASF, as explained by the CEO:

Mr Lier-Hansen said that it cost the industry 15 billion NOK just to combat sea lice last year and it had not been possible to overcome their negative effects of the farms on the environment.”

Indeed. The environmental issues referred to in the article are not just something to concern Norway. Without a huge effort in desk research, the scale of the negative environmental impact of fish farming, principally, is as apparent as it is shocking.

It has become apparent that the threats to the North Altantic Salmon are multiplying: infestation, infection, genetic degradation, and displacement.

  1. sea lice

Sea lice is the issue that often takes front and centre attention, quite possibly because the impact is visual. With sea lice showing growing resistance to medications – requiring increased frequency of medicated treatments – anything that can be done to reduce infestation is welcome. Some look to adaptations to farms’ net cages (p11-13). For others it is a very unwelcome cost of business, as in Norway.

The shedding of salmon from a lorry in Scotland brought into sharp focus the scale of the problem, with an admission that up to ten million fish had been thrown away in the by the Scottish fish farming industry in the past year because of diseases, parasites and other problems. This represents a doubling of disposal between 2013 and 2016 (around twenty three and a half thousand tonnes in 2016, about  an eighth of total production of almost 163,000 tonnes).

The infection of sea lice among farmed salmon, and spread to wild stocks has been documented over many years.

  1. disease & viral infections

Other infections are relatively new, and information still at research and review stage. Icelandic studies show high levels of Piscine Revirus (PRV) in farmed stocks:

“In the wild fish category, PRV frequency ranged between 0-100%, while in the sea-ranching and cultured category it was 95-100%.”

Though it isn’t clear what the impact of PRV, or its threat to wild salmon – the Icelandic research showed it wasn’t present in wild stocks to the scale it was evident in fish farms. It has been identified as a factor in Heart and Skeletal Muscular Inflammation (HMSI)

“HSMI was first described in Norway in 1999 [1]. Since then the number of outbreaks has increased and in 2012 there were 142 registered outbreaks [15]. The disease has also been reported in Scotland [16]. HSMI is mainly observed during the seawater grow-out phase of the fish, with morbidity close to 100% in affected cages, while cumulative mortality varies from negligible to 20% [17].”

The worrying aspect is that PRV is a recent discovery, and despite what some suggest, the ubiquity of the virus in farm stocks suggests the greater risks lie within the industry.

As with much in the area of the North Atlantic Salmon there is a great deal of research that tells us what there is, but few practical options presented as a way forward.

  1. genetic degradation

As if sea lice and disease were not enough, a far bigger risk is emerging that goes to the very DNA of the wild salmon.

In the list of statistics at the end of the Scottish Herald story on dead salmon disposal there is note that there were 311,496 farmed salmon escapees in 2016. Perhaps this sounds like a small number out of the 43 million young salmon introduced to the farms in the same year, but it remains a significantly large number of farmed fish free in the ocean.

The report that farmed salmon were found in Irish rivers in 2017 brought a denial Irish Salmon Growers Association (ISGA) – embedded in the powerful Irish Farmers Association –   that any of their five companies could have been responsible. Perhaps, but the farmed fish came from a fish farm nonetheless. The point being that the few dozen caught by anglers probably represent a small number of the total in the rivers systems.

The Irish report is simply anglers pointing out a concern. This report from Newfoundland is significantly more alarming. 

While noting the rapid decline of returning breeding salmon numbers as bad enough, necessitating closure of recreational salmon fishing to everything but hook and release fishing, there was a far greater issue that suggested the writing is on the wall for Newfoundland Wild Salmon:

“No, the writing’s on the wall because a chunk of the island’s native wild salmon stock just isn’t as wild any more.”

There can be claim and counterclaim on many issues:

“Absolutely no one might want to talk about sea lice infestations, treatment of farmed salmon with drugs, the problem of fish waste below ocean cages or the escapes of farmed salmon into the ocean.”

“But you can’t deny the DNA.”

A project was initiated in 2014:

“In 2014, DFO started a project to analyze the impacts of a major salmon escape from a southern Newfoundland salmon farm, saying, “Aquaculture escapees represent a continued threat to the genetic integrity of wild populations, and have been shown to interbreed with wild fish, which can impact local adaptation. In southern Newfoundland, wild Atlantic salmon populations remain at record lows and their status is considered “threatened” …

What was discovered?:

“For the first time the unambiguous, widespread detection of first- and second-generation wild- aquaculture hybrid salmon and pure aquaculture offspring (i.e. 35 per cent hybrids, 17/18 rivers within 75 km) has been reported,” the research says. “Results indicate that levels of hybridization were higher in smaller populations, hybridization had pre-dated the 2013 escape event, and some hybrids were reproductively viable.”

What does it mean?:

“Well, narrowing the genetic diversity of species limited its ability to survive specific threats: disease can march much more quickly through a monoculture.”

“On the genetic side, one of the things that helps a population survive is its genetic variation; a fish with one kind of parentage might be better equipped — in fact, might be specifically ecologically adapted — for a particular Newfoundland river, for its flows and food stocks, for the fish’s own ability to convert particular food materials into muscle or fat.”

“Add a rubber-stamp monoculture aquaculture fish to the parental mix, and the next generation might not be anywhere near as successful.”

“Add that to the fact that scores of salmon smolt seem to be going to sea and not returning, and you have to ask how long we expect our own particular salmon to last.”

  1. displacement

As if all of the above were not enough, in Scotland add in the potential for displacement of Atlantic Salmon by the Pacific pink salmon (humpback) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-highlands-islands-40610652  – the origins tracing back to introduction into Russia some decades ago.

What is the next step?

What is true in respect of Newfoundland has to be a concern everywhere. Indications suggest that is the case. Iceland’s Agriculture Genetics Committee has called for a halt to new licences for fish farms:

The committee believes that the use of fertile salmon in open sea pens can cause irreversible changes in the genetic composition of Icelandic salmon stocks, with unforeseen consequences.

This view was based on research on Norwegian salmon. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/faf.12214/abstract

Despite bodies such as North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organisation existing since 1984, which brings together many organisations with longer pedigree, the story of the North Atlantic Salmon is one of decline – while the number and nature of threats seem to increase.

Set against the US$10 billion global industry the resources of NASCO’s International Atlantic Salmon Research Board appear slight, and dependent of governmental largesse – governments no doubt being lobbied proactively by the fish farming industry.

The announcement by Norsk Industri on a halt to further development of open sea salmon farms is welcome. However, it can only be a start of an evaluation of the impact of the fish farm industry on wild salmon stocks.

Even with a very cursory overview, the rise of aquaculture has brought or perhaps intensified the risks of sustainable stocks of wild salmon: infestation, infection, genetic degradation, and displacement.

Orri Vigfússon brought voice to the cause. That voice needs urgent amplification to secure targeted and forceful action to save the North Atlantic Salmon.

Orri will be missed. There is no lack of talking about the decline in the North Atlantic Salmon, a deterioration that seems to accelerating despite the best efforts of all those who voice concern. Unless talk is followed by action, research and projects that merely monitor, note and demand more research will not make a jot of difference.

Beyond passion for the North Altlantic Salmon, expressed through sustaining Orri’s work through many regional NASF chapters in respect of commercial nets and programmes such as East Marchais.

The mission to secure sustainable Atlantic Salmon stocks demands greater action on a wide range of risks to the species by anglers, conservation organisations, and Governments alike; the sooner the better.