(Photograph: Birgir Ísleifur Gunnarsson)
The late chairman of the North Atlantic Salmon Fund, whose work and dedication to restoring wild Atlantic salmon populations has made him the most honoured angler on earth.
Where did you grow up?
In Siglufjörður, a herring town in northern Iceland, just south of the Arctic Circle. My parents were in the fishing industry, processing herring for export in barrels to Poland, Sweden and Russia.
Tell us about your first fish?
The first fish I can remember catching was an Arctic char from a river near Siglufjörður, which I caught on a worm. I think I was probably eight or nine years old. But as Siglufjörður is a fishing town, if I wasn’t at school I was at the docks, watching the comings and goings, and of course fishing for cod and other species. But I particularly remember that char because it was such a beautiful fish and such a luxurious fish to eat – it was very special.
How did you get into salmon fishing?
Through my uncle, Jón Sigtryggsson, who used to go to the Big Laxá every year to fish for salmon. One year he invited me to go along (I was in my early 20s). That was my very first introduction to a river that has remained a part of my life ever since. I caught my very first salmon on that trip, a 17lb hen taken on a Texas Rose fly, and I have since fished the Big Laxá for 50 consecutive seasons.
And your most memorable salmon so far?
Without a doubt, a big, silver hen fish that I caught from the high cliff above the famous Núpafoss on Big Laxá in 1978. I wrote about it in detail in the foreword to Topher Brown’s book, Atlantic Salmon Magic, but it was special because it was an incredible fight. It is such an awkward place from which to land a fish and my wife and two children were there with me. Indeed, after several failed attempts, my wife netted that fish for me while my son and daughter looked on. It was a magical moment.
Your biggest salmon so far?
A 25lb cock salmon from the Rynda River, Russia, in 2003.
How many salmon rivers have you fished over the years?
I have fished about 80 rivers in 12 countries including Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Northern Ireland and Canada.
Which ones are your favourites?
Unquestionably the Laxá in Aðaldalur (Big Laxá) and the Selá in Iceland, the Naver in Scotland and the mighty Alta in Norway.
What is your favourite fly?
The Night Hawk. I caught a lot of my early salmon on this beautiful feather-wing pattern, so it holds great sentimental value for me. I still use it a lot.
What rod and reel do you fish with?
I use Sage, Loop and Guideline rods and Danielsson and Einarsson reels.
Who is the most talented salmon fisher you know?
Jeremy Herrmann. I have fished with him on several rivers in Iceland, Norway and England and he’s just very, very good. He has an uncanny ability to interpret all of the ecological, biological and physical factors affecting salmon fishing. He is amazing in that respect and always seems to know what to do in all situations. I think he has more angling records in the UK than anyone else.
And if you could share a day on the river with anyone who would it be?
Joan Wulff or Alexander the Great. I read many many years ago that the first fly was invented in Alexander the Great’s day.
(Photograph: Birgir Ísleifur Gunnarsson)
If you could impart just one piece of angling advice to the newcomer, what would it be?
Be patient. It takes time to learn the techniques required to catch salmon and find out about the biological factors that are so important. The learning process is a long and slow one. Embrace it all. The truth is that you won’t have immediate success – you may catch one by luck – but you must be patient. In my mind, the best salmon fishermen are British because the fishing in the UK is up and down and they accept that. They are patient. I met two brothers who came to fish the Hofsa and they told me that they had fished in Scotland for six seasons and they have never caught a salmon before. I respect that level of dedication and patience.
Why Atlantic salmon?
Quite simply because it is the king of fish. It is so beautiful, so majestic, so mysterious, so interesting. It is a fish that has captured my imagination and I would consider it a great and devastating outcome if we were to lose this iconic fish due to inaction on our part.
To me, according to statistics, we have severely underestimated the decline in Atlantic salmon. And now, with the complications of climate change, the decline is being accelerated. Our politicians have never been able to arrest the decline, so we need to do something else.
When and why did you decide to start conserving wild Atlantic salmon?
Because stocks were disappearing at an alarming rate. I had been fishing for salmon in Iceland for 25 years, and in the 1970s things were great. But by the mid 1980s it had become clear that there were fewer and fewer fish returning to our rivers. We started to analyse things and discovered that a hell of a lot of fish were being caught at sea by long liners and in nets. Something had to be done.
The Icelandic system is all about transferable quotas, so we decided to sit down with the commercial fishermen and discuss things. We knew that the only way to get them to stop fishing for salmon was to pay them fairly and generously. This is still the problem in the UK – you can’t just ban professional fishermen from catching salmon; you have to compensate them generously. So in 1989 I set up the North Atlantic Salmon Fund (NASF). I called my fishing partners in the UK, Iceland and in the USA and told them what I wanted to do and they embraced it. There were some cynics, but there always will be. By 1994 or 1995, everybody was in agreement. Our efforts were starting to pay off and salmon numbers were beginning to recover. Then everyone said to me that we also needed to pay off the North Sea drift nets in England, which we did. But there is so much disunity amongst fishing interests, particularly in the UK. Everyone is chasing the same money. Now more and more money is coming from EU subsidies which is the wrong way to go about things. The private sector, the people who own the fishing rights, must pay to retain these rights or we will just be in the pocket of our political masters. The money must come from the riparian owners.
Scotland should be contributing at least £65,000 per year for the protection of its wild salmon whilst they are on the feeding grounds in the far north. But NASF gets nothing from the Scottish Government and virtually nothing from the fishery boards to help us pay for protecting their fish. We must remember that the high seas fishermen have the right to fi sh and they must be paid if we expect them to stop fishing for salmon. You can’t just ban these people. In order to succeed in our efforts to conserve all wild Atlantic salmon, we have to be united and recognise that this is the only way to go about it.
How successful has NASF been in protecting salmon?
Over the past 25 years we have promoted and arranged commercial agreements through which about 5,200 long liners and netsmen have abandoned the catching of wild salmon, in return for compensation or help to create alternative fisheries. We addressed their income, their culture, their lifestyle and their needs. When you have a commercial, written agreement, you have a long-term arrangement – so when politicians change and policies change, these agreements are not affected. You can ban something temporarily, but in the long-term, there is no guarantee that the ban will not be overturned by the next government. With a commercial agreement, there is a transfer of property rights, and so they have no choice but to abide by the agreement.
Something else that people must realise is that, although NASCO is an international convention intended to protect salmon, it is forbidden from intervening in domestic policies or regulating what happens in coastal waters. So the answer does not lie there. We need a new international treaty for wild Atlantic salmon. At the moment, the NASCO treaty is flawed as it discriminates in its treatment of its signatory nations.
Has it been a full-time job for you?
Yes, absolutely. I have dedicated 10 – 15 hours a day to it for the past 25 years. But it has been a voluntary job as no-one gets paid. I more or less retired in 1989 and dedicated my time to conserving wild Atlantic salmon. It is all voluntary with a few short-term contracts from time to time for scientists etc. I have a fantastic team of people across 20 countries – all of them are experts in their field. Of course, I also have a lot of lawyers who go through all of our international agreements with the commercial fishermen.
Where did the funding initially come from and what was its primary purpose?
The very first funds came from the Bass family in Texas. The initial focus was to stop all interceptory commercial fishing of mixed stocks of salmon because there is no way that fishermen can know if they are killing fish from a river that can withstand some exploitation. Many rivers can’t and every spawner is too precious to kill.
I was invited to New York to meet some people from the Atlantic Salmon Federation – who have been very supportive for the past 25 years – and I met the Bass family there. They put up the first tranche of money, and continued to do so for many years after that. Since then I have secured funding from many others.
Have things changed a lot since 1989?
The dramatic decline has been halted for now, and we now have the basis to achieve real restoration. After we started, the decline continued for a few years, but I believe that from 2000 until 2012, there was an increase in stocks.
Now, however, something that reduces salmon survival at sea is happening and we can’t be sure what it is. Climate change has caused the northern seas to warm and, as a result, the feeding grounds have shifted north. The big, multi-sea-winter fish don’t appear to have been too badly affected, but the grilse, which spend only one winter at sea, have really suffered. Scale-readings have shown that the first few weeks at sea have led to very slow growth.
I really think someone in Scotland needs to establish what Scottish smolts feed on when they first get to sea. I personally believe that it is sand eels from the sand banks off the East Coast of Scotland, but that is conjecture. We need scientific proof. And many people will ask: “Why conserve millions of salmon in the Faroe Islands, only to see them caught in nets off Scotland?”
And what have been the greatest challenges for the NASF along the way?
Fighting civil servants within the individual countries, poor science (there has never been a comprehensive, holistic project conducted across the entire North Atlantic) and fellow anglers. I would like to see my fellow anglers realise and accept what they need to do. Most of them never pay a penny towards salmon conservation. I don’t want it to be compulsory, but I would like to see many more making voluntary contributions. Most Scottish fishery boards have not contributed for 15 – 20 years, so individual donations are very much needed. We need to prioritise our activities. A lot of people think the only problem is a few seals in Scotland. Yes, they are a nuisance, but they are not the main focus.
What would you regard as your biggest achievement(s) so far?
Securing the Faroese and Greenland quotas.
And today, what do you regard as the greatest threats to wild Atlantic salmon and challenges that you/NASF face?
Dealing with the remaining nets, dams and the fish farming industry. The negative effects of the latter are terrible. Every year the fish farming companies come up with new ways of fighting the sea lice, but they never work. The pollution the caged fish produce is horrific. And there is a huge number of escapees – there are probably ten times more escapees than wild salmon. And of course we are all worried about the genetic problems that arise from farmed salmon cross-breeding with wild stocks. The industry has deliberately concentrated on farming the progeny of fast-growing fish rather than those tough enough to survive the hundreds or thousands of miles they must cover in their migration. The coastal netting in Scotland has also increased in recent years because of Scottish Government backed EU subsidies. And there are dams that need to be dismantled.
In your mind, what needs to be done to conserve and protect our wild Atlantic salmon stocks – a) by governments and organisations; and b) by recreational anglers?
a) Prioritise efforts, deploy common sense solutions and apply practical actions. Don’t go to NASCO officials and expect them to change the rules; they do not have the remit to do so. Netting needs to cease completely for the next few years.
b) Recreational anglers need to return as many salmon as possible. We need every single salmon to spawn. For the next few years, I would like to see ALL salmon released. Our wild breeding stock is so low. And they also need to dig into their pockets and donate to those organisations that fi ght so hard to protect the salmon that they all value so highly.
The 2014 fishing season was a very poor one, in the UK, Iceland and Canada. And yet Russia’s season was okay. What would you attribute this to?
Overall salmon stocks have declined significantly across the North Atlantic range and science has not been able to explain why. I think this has to do with climate change. There are a lot of biological factors at sea that no one seems to be able to pin-point or fully understand. But I am convinced that whatever it is, it has to do with climate change. In Greenland, they were catching salmon underneath the ice in the very far north. This was previously unheard of. The 2014 season was not just a blip. Climate change is only aggravating the problems and will continue to do so. It is to be expected.
If you could convey one message to the UK/Scottish Government, what would it be?
Scotland and Norway are the big problem. Every few years their governments hold another review and give more powers to the same departments that have continually failed in the past. This is not just about biology or science, it is about culture. In Scotland, I think they need to move the responsibility of salmon to the department for Culture, Arts and Tourism. This would be much more appropriate – the cultural value of a wild Atlantic salmon is a million times greater than its cash value. I would like to see a fresh approach. If you look closely at the Andrew Thin report, all of the suggestions come from the scientific departments that have failed so many times in the past.
The netting of wild Atlantic salmon should have been stopped outright 30 years ago, not by bans, but by fair negotiations with the commercial fishermen. You need to have just one national campaigning focus. All interceptory mixed stock nets and long lines need to end in return for fair and generous compensation. Every angler and every river owner should join in. www.nasfworldwide.com