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.

Besides running the NASF, you also manage a successful vodka company, Icy Vodka. Has that experience helped you negotiate commercial agreements with the fishermen?

Absolutely. Last month in Copenhagen, we had a meeting with the leaders of the commercial salmon netsmen in the North Atlantic to discuss how to find markets for alternative species to fish, like lumpfish and snow crab. We have been very successful in generating a lumpfish industry and a market for lumpfish caviar, the “poor man’s caviar.”

What is it about salmon? People seem to respond to this fish in particular.

But of course. The salmon is one of the most beautiful creatures on earth. Salmon sportfishermen get very dedicated to this project. 

How will you know when you’re done?

I would like to finish cleaning up Ireland and Norway and Scotland. Simultaneously, I would like to start this big project in [continental] Europe to restore the salmon stocks there. I probably won’t live long enough, but I would like to use the same policies for restoring the cod stocks of the world.

And in between all that, maybe you’ll get to do some fishing yourself.

I try to go fly fishing in July and August. Lots of my friends from across the world come and visit Iceland during those two months, so I get to meet them and fish with them and have fun. But in September, I’m back on the road, trying to raise money and negotiate agreements.

Are you optimistic about the future of the Atlantic salmon?

I am. We have had a breakthrough in Ireland, and what we can do now is start a major restoration program in Europe. A few hundred years ago, the river Rhine was the world’s biggest producer of wild salmon. They were almost completely eliminated, but there is now a restocking program and a few hundred salmon have entered the river system. The Rhine of course goes into Germany and France, all the way up into Switzerland.

You mean people used to fish for salmon in the Swiss Alps? 

There used to be quite a good run up to the Schaffhausen Falls, near Zurich. This is our goal — to get them back there.

Story by Kevin Friedl. This article originally appeared in Plenty in April 2007. The story was added to in June 2009.

Copyright Environ Press 2007.

An upstream battle
How a vodka czar is saving the wild salmon.