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Friday, 1 June, 2001, 09:52 GMT 10:52 UK
Wild salmon face numbers crisis: WWF
Salmon are endangered in many areas, says the WWF
By BBC News Online's Jo Kettlewell

Wild salmon numbers are declining throughout the world and could sustain irreparable damage if preventative measures are not taken, the WWF said on Thursday.

Over the last three decades the 'king of fish' has been wiped out completely from 300 of the 2,000 rivers that it naturally inhabits worldwide, it said in a report published on Thursday.

The species is already extinct in seven of the 76 salmon-bearing rivers in England and Wales, it adds.

It blames the loss on a combination of overfishing, climate change, industrial pollution, dam building and the effects of commercial fish farming.

Governments should take urgent action to restore rivers where the fish is threatened or has disappeared, and should protect those rivers still hosting healthy populations, it says.

And, it adds, salmon farms should face stricter controls to prevent damage to local populations.
Salmon farm
Escaped farm salmon could harm wild populations, the report says

Brink of extinction

'The Status of Wild Atlantic Salmon - A River by River Assessment' says salmon catches fell by more than 80% between 1970 and the end of the 20th century.

Wild salmon have virtually disappeared in Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Belgium, while other countries such as the US are on the brink of salmon extinction, it says.

Elizabeth Leighton, Senior Policy Officer at WWF, told BBC News Online: "Sub extinctions are happening right now and that is what people are not aware of.

"They think that if there are still salmon in the rivers then there is not a problem. We have to give greater attention to that, as time is running out".

Human responsibility?

The WWF holds humans responsible for much of the salmon loss.

During the 1970's over-fishing severely depleted wild salmon populations. Since then, an increase in salmon farming has removed some of the pressure of commercial fishing, but, it says, there are now signs that the fish farming itself could have unwanted side effects:

"Farmed salmon can cause a number of problems for wild salmon. If farmed salmon get out they can compete, and interbreed with wild salmon, causing genetic erosion of the local population," Ms Leighton said.

Disturbing the genetic make-up of a particular salmon population is damaging because they are so finely adapted to their local environment. An injection of new genes makes it harder for the population to survive.

This genetic fine tuning also means that once a salmon population has been eradicated from a particular river system it is very difficult to replace, because newcomers will not be adapted in the right way.

I would like to see people write a letter to their local governments saying 'I want to eat salmon, I know it is good for me, but I don't want to damage local populations'.

Elizabeth Leighton
Senior Policy Officer, WWF

"What is wonderful about wild salmon is that in each river you will have a specific population, and they will always come back to that very same river.

"We don't know quite how they do it but they will always come back. So when they have gone, that is it. You can't replace them," Elizabeth Leighton said.

Consumer pressure

But, she says, tighter controls on fish farming would be a step forwards.

A responsible salmon farm is one which is not located too close to wild populations and does not overcrowd its stock, which allows parasites to flourish, she adds.

Restocking salmon-free rivers can be done if it is done very carefully.

If a gene bank of salmon populations is formed before they become extinct, it is possible to restock that river with fish that already have the all-important genetic fine tuning.

And for those who enjoy smoked salmon sandwiches, there is also a role to play.

"As consumers we should be arguing for the best standards in salmon aquaculture.

"A lot of farmed salmon is harmful to local populations and I don't think people would be happy to buy if they knew that," Ms Leighton says.

Industry efforts

The salmon farming industry body Scottish Quality Salmon said on Thursday that its members were already working to preserve fish stocks.

"Given the many complex factors in the worldwide decline of wild Atlantic salmon, Scottish Quality Salmon recognises the importance of preserving stocks which is precisely why its members have already successfully established Area Management Groups throughout the west coast of Scotland and the Western Isles to secure better working relationships at local level between salmon farmers and wild fish interests on matters of fish health, welfare and production.

"Scottish Quality Salmon also has a compulsory Code of Practice on containment of fish, which was developed after consultation with the Scottish Executive and is in addition to our work with NASCO (North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organisation) to introduce internationally recognised guidelines," SQS chairman Lord Lindsay said.

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28 Dec 00 | Scotland
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