Salmon - Atlantic

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This is one of three Fishopedia pages about salmon. The others cover Pacific salmon and farmed salmon.


Salmon is an outstandingly important and popular fish. Although it spends most of its life in the sea, it is born in rivers and famously returns to the river of its birth to spawn. Salmon’s ability to survive in both freshwater and salty seawater is unusual and requires clever body chemistry. (The term for such fish is euryhaline and there are two types: anadromous fish mature at sea and spawn in rivers, catadromous fish - eels being the foremost example - do it the other way round.)

When it returns from its sea-going phase, salmon is a big fish–normally bigger than other fresh water fish—and was historically also abundant, so easily caught in prehistoric times before the era of sea-going fishermen. Thus, in its native areas of northern Europe and the west coast of North America, it became a key food source thousands of years ago and is embedded in culture and tradition.

Thanks to farming, Atlantic salmon or Salmo salar is available on every fish counter, but due to the supernatural abundance of its Pacific cousins, has only ever comprised a tiny proportion of the wild salmon catch. But wild Atlantic salmon looms large in the European consciousness. This is the fish which wealthy folk pay huge fees to catch in Scottish rivers throughout the summer. The same fish also return to rivers in Ireland, Iceland, Norway and Arctic-facing Russia and Canada where equally eager fishermen await them. A pathetic few still also get back to the New England states of the USA, but with no fishermen to greet them since all fishing for wild salmon in the USA is prohibited.

A proud moment on The River Tay


Salmo salar spends its first two or three years in the river of its birth, growing - unless eaten by one of its many predators - through the stages of "fry" and then "parr" to around 10-15 centimetres. Known at this stage as a "smolt", the salmon takes to the sea and heads for the rich cold waters off Norway and Greenland, feeding voraciously and growing quickly. The salmon becomes sexually mature after one to three years, by which time it will weigh between two and 20 kilos and measure up to a metre. The salmon now returns to its place of birth, navigating (it is believed) via the earth’s magnetic field, and in ideal circumstances finding by smell the exact spot of its birth. The salmon doesn’t eat on its trip home and is pretty exhausted by the time it gets 50 or 100 miles up the river, assuming no fisherman catches it first. It will then mate, with a good-sized female laying around 10,000 eggs. And for most salmon, it’s then all over – they struggle back towards the sea but very few make it. Those which do recover and do it all over again.


The big picture for Atlantic salmon is that the population has been decimated everywhere. The first place where they were brought low was New England. Although some argue otherwise the accepted story is that 250 years ago its rivers were thick with salmon in the summer. But industrialisation, especially in the form of impassable dams and pollution, had made the fish virtually rare by 1850. Sea fishing didn’t help either but it continued until 1948 when it was formally banned in US waters. By the year 2000 when the Atlantic salmon was declared an endangered species and fishing by rod was banned too, the total catch was down to just a few dozen fish. A recent update of the US government's recovery plan envisages that it will take 75 years for salmon to emerge from “threatened” status.

Veazie Dam in Maine - salmon stopper - removed in 2013.


Large river systems in old England suffered similar fates to those in New England but Scotland fared a lot better until recently. It is part of the salmon legend that 200 years ago, the inmates of poor houses would complain about having to eat salmon for six days a week. This was supplied by fishermen who would place nets across the mouths and estuaries of rivers (and even further up) to catch returning salmon. Their average annual catch of salmon and sea trout on the River Tay – one of the largest salmon rivers (for which a wealth of historical detail is available in a PhD thesis by Iain Aitken Robinson) – stood at 80,000 fish in the 1830s. I estimate this to correspond to about 425 tonnes. Rod fishermen up the Tay and all other rivers naturally objected and throughout the 19th century there was a debate about overfishing which eventually resulted in legislation restricting net fishermen by limiting their activity to half the day only, or to only a few days a week, or to only half the river mouth or all three.  Eventually a rough and much-argued-about balance was achieved and the average catch on the River Tay was - with wide variations - steady at 40-50,000 fish a year through most of the 20th century, which was not in fact too far from the average for the previous century. 

In those days, the company was no friend of gentlemen anglers

However, catches have collapsed in recent years. To conserve fish for angling, artisan fishing by net has been gradually closed down, usually by River committees buying out the fisherman’s licences. These initiatives brought down the proportion of salmon caught by netting from around 80 per cent in the 1970s to under five per cent today and helped sustain the angling catch into the early years of this century. But now the angling catch is disappearing too: in 2010, 10,000 fish were caught on the River Tay; in 2018, 4,400 (about 25 tonnes). 2019 was worse. The problem is that fewer fish are returning to the rivers. Hatcheries and related efforts to protect salmon eggs and release young salmon into rivers – one million eggs were released into the River Tay and its tributaries in 2017/18 – have not reversed the trend.


Even spread across all its native nations, the catch of Atlantic salmon was never large compared to other fish. The recorded catch peaked around 1970 at 12,000 tonnes but has fallen steadily to only 1,000 tonnes (with an estimated unreported catch of 300 tonnes) in 2017 and it continues to deteriorate. We appear to be at the closing stage of a catastrophe.


It is a well-recorded catastrophe. Salmon is the most regulated fish on the planet. Due to the difficulties commercial and recreational fishermen historically had in sharing out a fish that is caught both at sea and in rivers, there is a huge network of both official and private organisations dedicated to its welfare. Literally every salmon river in the civilised world is run by a committee of interested parties and thus there are 64 salmon fishing committees in England and Wales and another 66 in Scotland.

Every salmon river has one

Every river committee or board is required to report exhaustive figures to a government agency. It is standard for catch statistics to record not only the tonnage of salmon caught but the number of fish. The age of the salmon and the river or river mouth on which it was caught are recorded too. The Irish, UK, Canadian, US and Norwegian governments have for decades published annual reports along these lines. The UK reports (one for Scotland and one for England and Wales) are 90 pages long and are the basis for stringent regulations about how many salmon are allowed to be caught. 60 of the 64 English and Welsh rivers are “at risk” or “probably at risk” of their salmon populations dying out. For 54 rivers, there is a specific Salmon Action Plan detailing efforts to conserve young salmon in the river and prescribing fish tagging, conservation limits and so on.


In the 1970s it was recognised that a co-ordinated international programme was required. Thus the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organisation was set up in 1984, especially to focus on the third component of the wild salmon catch which was by Canadian, Norwegian, Faroese and Greenland fishing fleets which took salmon at sea before it began its return journey. When the salmon catch began to decline, these fleets seemed to be the obvious culprits, because if salmon could not return to its native river, clearly it could not breed.

Through the 1980s sea fishing was curtailed and in 1992, formally discontinued. The chart above clearly shows this. But the fish no longer being caught at sea should have boosted the coastal and recreational catches in Northern and Southern Europe (some salmon were native to rivers as far south as Portugal). But they did not.  The initiative may have helped and perhaps explains why the Northern European catch denoted above falls by a smaller extent than the other catches. But it nevertheless falls, from 3,000 tonnes in the 1970s to under 1,000 tonnes currently. 


The problem is clearly no longer fishing and nor is it dam-building or pollution. It is that many fewer fish return from the sea. The health of young salmon in rivers is closely monitored by all those committees and their numbers supplemented by hatcheries. A sufficient proportion of these salmon survive to become smolts and set off to sea. But many fewer come back. According to The Atlantic Salmon Trust, currently less than five per cent of the salmon which depart Scottish salmon rivers return, compared with 18 per cent a couple of decades ago.

The UK picture for is mirrored in other countries. Nobody knows why salmon numbers are falling. Salmon-farming attracts a lot of suspicion centred on the health problems prevalent in salmon farms and the problem of escapees with poor genes cross-breeding with the wild stock. But no-one believes these fully explain the decline in the wild catch. Global-warming is a more likely candidate, perhaps via its effect on the salmon’s food.


At the Fish Society we historically bought 300 or 400 fine wild salmon a year which had been caught by artisanal fishermen around the east coasts of northern England and Scotland. But in 2018 we bought just half a dozen and in 2019, none. We no longer sell wild Atlantic salmon. And it is now very unusual for recreational fishermen to keep the fish they catch, should they be lucky enough to do so. “Catch and release” is now their rule. As an American commentator told Forbes magazine, “A salmon is too valuable to be caught only once.”

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