A Man May Fish – Orri Vigfússon and the Atlantic Salmon

 

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We’ve all been a bit tied up over the past few weeks, so its been a bit quiet on the blog front I’m afraid!  Ian and Neil got stuck in a massive storm out in Hornstrandir, leaving them with wrecked tents, nowhere dry to sleep, and weather so bad that the storm sequence we’ve been trying to film (and failing to! Honestly the weather has been amazing most of this year) was impossible to get safely.

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More on their exploits in another post, in the meantime, a catchup on the salmon we (Neil and myself actually, Ian was up with the foxes in a tent in the rain) went to film on the Laxa and Sela rivers in North and North East Iceland.

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I’m a self confessed fly fishing nut, Ive always loved the peace and tranquility of flyfishing in wild places. The idea of making a film about Iceland and not including salmon was unthinkable (Iceland has some of the best salmon fishing in the world), we really wanted to find out how Iceland has managed to maintain and improve its salmon stocks whilst the rest of the Atlantic Salmon world is seeing a disturbing decline.

Many years ago I read a book called “A Man May fish” by the late and colourful Irish Judge TC Kingsmill Moore. A wonderful book crammed with stories and techniques of salmon, trout and sea trout fishing in Ireland during the years when fish farming, pollution and high seas netting had not yet annihilated that countries rich river stocks. Amongst his tales of fishing are little cameos about Irish folk whisked away by fairies, houses half built and then abandoned because they were built across fairy passes (parallels with the Icelandic Hidden People or Huldufólk here!) and the opening line that…

“It may have been fortunate that fishing was not made too easy”

Having spent many years tying flies to match hatching insects, selecting the right fly to lure that occasional salmon, I can certainly vouch that there are many, many ways of attempting to catch a fish, probably the least efficient of which is fly fishing! But you don’t go fishing to catch fish, its far, far more than that!

Technique (or lack of) aside, an absolute pre requisite for a days fishing is the knowledge that there are indeed fish in the river to be caught in the first place, and for the past 50 years or so, this is where the trouble has been.

Global stocks of Atlantic Salmon (and sea trout) have crashed over a very short space of time – Since the early 1970’s there has been a steady decline in the numbers of Salmon and Sea trout returning to the rivers of the UK, northern Europe, Russia and indeed Iceland. Today some rivers in North America are down to literally a handful of returning fish, and even our famous Scottish rivers are declining steadily (no thanks to the current government there http://www.salmon-trout.org/news_item.asp?news_id=315 )

(Biology bit – Atlantic Salmon and Sea trout are born in wild oxygen rich rivers, go to the high seas of the North Atlantic to feed for a couple of years, and then return to their precise river of birth to spawn, )

Now, exactly where to point the finger of blame for this disaster is a complex issue, but there is no doubt that fishing on the high seas (not with rod and line in the rivers), interceptory coastal netting (where the river mouths are netted to catch the returning fish), pollution from salmon farms (infestations of sea lice included) and a total lack of cohesive strategy from governments to address these issues, all play their part in the downfall of the King of Fish.

Something needed to be done.

At this point you may be wondering why a blog on Iceland is spending some considerable time talking about the demise of a species of fish which inhabits a large section of the entire North Atlantic, not just Iceland. Well I’ll tell you…

Organisations like the Salmon and Trout Association and NASCO amongst others have played important roles in stopping the decline of salmon and continue this much needed work to this day. One man however stands out a mile in his tireless work to save the Atlantic Salmon over the past 50 years ,Orri Vigfússon and his organisation the NASF.

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A businessman, environmentalist and one of a new breed of so called “green capitalists”, he started up the North Atlantic Salmon Fund (NASF) during the 1970’s to halt the decline of salmon.

His method was simple, pay the netsman NOT to catch wild salmon and seek other more sustainable fishing. To this end, he has since raised over $35million and tirelessly campaigns and lobbies the relevant Atlantic Governments and industries.

Theres a more complete bio at the end of this blog detailing Orri’s impressive acheievements, but in short his efforts have earned him a Goldman Environmental Prize in 2007 for “preventing the seemingly inevitable decimation of the wild North Atlantic salmon populations.” A Prince of Wales Conservation Award, and conservation awards from several organizations including the U.S. National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Atlantic Salmon Federation USA, VISA, and the U.K. Salmon and Trout Association. He is Fellow with Ashoka Innovators for the Public, which recognizes progressive entrepreneurs who have solutions to social problems and in 2004, Time magazine named Vigfusson a “European hero.”

So when Orri kindly volunteered to help us film a salmon fishing sequence, we knew we were in the very best hands!

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We wanted to film fly fishing for salmon in particular because of the unique relationship between anglers (the vast majority of which are commited conservationists) and their prey, and of course it’s a very beautiful thing to see some skillfully cast a fly. (anyone remember watching Brad Pitt casting a fly in the film “A River Runs Through It” ?)

Our journey first took us to one of Orri’s favourite rivers, the Laxa in Adaldal or Big Laxa, near Husavik in Northern Icealnd. It’s a beautiful, strong storming river draining Lake Myvatn out to sea in stunning surroundings, the wildlife is superb, and there are great numbers of Harlequin and Eider Duck here.

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Our stay at the Laxamyri lodge near Husavik was wonderful. Food and accommodation were extremely comfortable and the staff were brilliant.

We were there when the Lupins were in full bloom, and despite their controversial nature, no one can doubt the fact that seeing fields of pretty blue flower heads gently swaying in the breeze is a lovely sight.

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Its one of those places where you just instantly relax and feel at home, looking out at the river above the falls in the morning with a coffee you knew you were in the right place to fish!

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We were there for opening day – the season is quite short (June to September) and tradition holds that the landowners cast the first flies over the water.

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Within half an hour of the 7am start a fish was on! Fishing at the bottom of the waterfall that plunge into the sea pool, one of the landowners, Jón Helgi Björnsson, was into a lively fish fresh in from the sea.

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A spirited fight was soon brought under control and a beautiful silver springer of about 15lbs was carefully netted, measured (and scale sample taken) then gently released back to resume its journey upstream to spawn.

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Catch and release is most certainly the order of play on this and the majority of Icelandic rivers. Its vital that Anglers start playing their part in the long term survival of salmon and start looking seriously at releasing the majority if not all of their fish. This is even more important with the uncertain future that salmon face. It makes sense from an economic point of view too, It took Orri a while to convince the landowners and fellow anglers of the benefits of catch and release, but when you realize that “If a salmon is worth say $1000 when you catch it and kill it, released alive and caught again its worth another $1000, catch the same fish a third time and you’ve got $3000”

Makes sense to put it back really!

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(And yes a salmon really can be worth $1000 when you consider how much anglers are willing to spend on a days fishing, rods, accommodation etc, its big business)

So our time at Laxa sped by. We got some great footage of salmon under water, and some lovely casting sequences.

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Needless to say, the GoPro came in for some hard work, getting attached to rods, heads, poles and nets, Whilst Neil had a lot of fun and got some great stuff topside. (Of course in the great tradition of Producers/Directors everywhere, I managed to get away with doing some fishing!)

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One thing that really stood out was the skill of our guide Ármann Kristjánsson

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On a 25km long river, finding the salmon, even though they are prolific here, is not straightforward. It requires a supreme amount of knowledge and skill to find their holding spots. Especially when you understand that they do not feed in freshwater, so you cant rely on them appearing at feeding time or taking flies off the surface. …..was brilliant, he grew up on the river and knows it like the back of his hand. In the few days we were there, we covered all the likely lies and the best pools, raised a few fish, and caught, filmed and released a few too.

We also had to check out the Sela River over in North East Iceland for a few days. This place is truly spectacular, wild water plunging down over dramatic waterfalls and a brand new luxury lodge to rest weary bones at the end of a long days fishing.

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Our guides Gísli Ásgeirsson and Sveinn Björnsson (Dennni) were again superb, catching fish to order for us and enabling us to get some wonderful shots. We were certainly impressed by Gisli’s ability to cast a double handed fly rod with a GoPro attached!

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 Seeing them work together (1 spotting, 1 casting to the fish) on a pool where the only place to reach the salmon lie was from a 30ft cliff top was certainly very, very different from the more sedate runs and riffles of the River Wye and the like in the UK.

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Thats the key with Icelandic fishing really, its a definite adventure from start to finish, stunning scenery, the excitement of scrambling down canyons to film little known pools and always the the guarantee there are plenty of fish in the river, great stuff…

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if you get the chance to fish here in Iceland, do so! I cant think of two better rivers to try than The Big Laxa or Sela, so if a space appears on their long waiting list, grab it!

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Even if you have limited salmon fishing experience, you’ll be in safe hands and your guide will do all he can to get you into a fish. I’m mainly a trout fisherman with little salmon experience (I don’t have a double handed rod and cant Spey cast – though Ive now been firmly bitten by the bug and will learn how to!) but ….was patient enough to coach me into what lies to cover, speed of retrieve, choice of fly (small ones are popular here, Sunray Shadow the most successful by far).

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the food was amazing (they have a  superb team of chefs here!),

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and the accommodation and atmosphere of the lodges was fantastic, its a very warm, big thank you from us for making our stay so wonderful!

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Of course the main subject of filming interest here was the salmon and its struggle to overcome the stupidity and shortsightedness of men, insistent on plundering them in vast numbers from the high seas and river mouth netting stations, more on that in the film when it comes out of course (ETA next spring btw).

Even though angling has never had a major impact on salmon numbers (as I said its not an especially efficient way of catching fish!). Most rod anglers are beginning to see the light about the benefits of catch and release. A lot of the UK rivers have brought this in as a rule, certainly until stocks show signs of more solid recovery. As much as I enjoy eating salmon, and have no problem with taking fish for the table from sustainable stocks, the Atlantic Salmon needs all the help it can get right now, so catch and release must continue to be adopted by all.

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I can only say that thankfully there are a few good men like Orri Vigfusson to educate and convince the big companies and governments of a better way. Pretty much anywhere in the world where salmon run rivers, you can be sure that Orri is somewhere nearby, offering advice, incentives and waving the conservation flag in a creative, positive way that has been attractive to business and landowner alike.

That he tirelessly does it in such a constructive way is extraordinary, and as a man approaching his later years, albeit with amazing fitness and vigour, he can’t carry on doing this forever, he needs practical support. Ordinary anglers and individuals can play their part, supporting the salmon’ cause through donations, lobbying governments (Scotland and Norway are arguably the biggest threats at present) being careful about what farmed salmon they eat, practicing catch and release and raising awareness overall.

A man may fish indeed, but only whilst there are fish left in the rivers….

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If you are at all interested in saving this iconic species, Id urge you to join forces with Orri and the NASF, or indeed find out more from the following organisations

NASF

The Salmon and Trout Association – http://www.salmon-trout.org

http://www.environmentmaine.org/programs/mee/save-atlantic-salmon

http://www.asf.ca/main.html

here’s the details of the rivers Orri took us to, theres over 90 in Iceland to choose from!

Big Laxa

http://www.anglingiceland.is/rivers/salmon-rivers-full-service/laxa-in-adaldal/

Sela

http://www.sela.is/sela/about-sela–general-information-about-sela

More about Orri Vigfússon

 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orri_Vigfússon

This from the Goldman prize nominantion

Orri Vigfússon brokered huge international fishing rights buyouts with governments and corporations in the North Atlantic, effectively stopping destructive commercial salmon fishing in the region.

Throughout the latter part of the 20th century, the once-plentiful wild salmon populations in the chilly waters of the North Atlantic dwindled to dangerously low levels, affecting not only the sensitive ocean and river ecosystems of the region, but also the rural communities for whom salmon fishing is a long-held local tradition and source of income. In the early 1990s, Orri Vigfússon started an innovative, multinational initiative to buy out the fishing rights of commercial salmon fishers whose over-fishing was causing the decline. He represents a new breed of environmental leader who utilizes business skills and negotiating to effectively protect precious natural resources. Through his work, Vigfússon succeeded in preventing the seemingly inevitable decimation of wild North Atlantic salmon populations.

An entrepreneur and life-long outdoorsman, Vigfússon first became aware of declining salmon stocks in the 1970s while fishing along the rivers of his native northern Iceland. Speaking with others who lived or fished along local rivers, he learned the extent of Iceland’s shrinking river salmon populations. In response, Vigfússon founded the Iceland-based North Atlantic Salmon Fund (NASF).

Since 1989, the organization has raised more than US$35 million to buy the netting rights from commercial fishers across the North Atlantic, essentially paying commercial fishermen not to fish salmon in the North Atlantic. NASF has also brokered moratorium agreements with several national governments. These efforts have dramatically improved salmon fish stocks in numerous countries. According to NASF estimates, commercial open-sea fishing in the Atlantic has dropped by more than 75 percent in the last 15 years, and river anglers in several countries in areas where nets have been closed have reported substantial increases in salmon catches. In 2007, NASF estimated that more than five million North Atlantic salmon had been saved to date.

In order for the buyout system to be successful, Vigfússon had to succeed on a number of fronts. He had to raise millions of dollars to compensate the commercial fishermen for the loss of income they suffer in giving up salmon fishing. The agreements are designed to cover a fixed period of years but the hope is that by the time the agreements expire many of the fishermen will not wish to return to salmon fishing. A large percentage of NASF’s funds, therefore, is spent on assisting the fishers to find alternative employment. He also had to negotiate with individual governments in order to persuade them to provide matched funding and to change the policies and economic decisions that have previously influenced their fishing industry practices. To ensure the sustainability of these efforts, Vigfússon began promoting viable economic alternatives for salmon fishers including snow crab and lumpfish caviar harvesting.

In the beginning, Vigfússon reached out to a variety of stakeholders across Iceland, Europe and North America to convince them of the need to address the over-fishing problem. He met with residents of river communities and local anglers, who were all experiencing declining numbers of river salmon. He began discussions with commercial salmon fishers, talking openly with them about the extent of the problem from both an environmental and economic point of view, including how their own livelihoods were being affected. After raising significant grassroots support, Vigfússon approached governments, introducing his idea of the buyout agreements.

With a mind for business and a passion for his cause, Vigfússon brokered multi-million dollar buyouts or moratorium agreements with commercial salmon fishers in the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Wales, England, Greenland, France and Norway. Vigfússon and NASF´s branches in the UK and Northern Ireland brokered agreements to buy out the remaining drift nets in partnership with the authorities. In November 2006, after years of campaigning and negotiating by NASF, Ireland finally announced that it would buy out all of the country’s salmon drift-netting licenses. 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 will face, as well as providing an additional US$7 million fund to help rural communities deal with the loss of income.

This development represents one of the final steps in Vigfússon’s vision of securing a complete halt to salmon fishing at sea in the North Atlantic. Vigfússon is focused on the remaining interceptory coastal nets in Scotland and Norway, the last countries to operate major mixed-stock fisheries that prevent many returning salmon from reaching their native rivers. The governments in both countries have been slow to act and are reluctant to work with civil society groups such as NASF. As a result, both countries face significant negative impacts to the salmon stocks on their local rivers.

And have a look at this from the “Green Interview”

http://www.thegreeninterview.com/blog/orri-vigfusson-how-icelandic-green-capitalist-saved-north-atlantic-salmon

 

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2 thoughts on “A Man May Fish – Orri Vigfússon and the Atlantic Salmon

  1. Salmon Fishing UK

    Hey there! I’ve been following your website for
    a while now and finally got the courage to go ahead and
    give you a shout out from Dallas Tx! Just wanted to mention keep up the good job!

    Reply

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