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Last Updated: Sunday, 22 April 2007, 08:26 GMT 09:26 UK
Salmon campaigner lands top award
Leaping salmon (Image: PA)
Overfishing led to a rapid decline in wild salmon returning to rivers
An Icelandic businessman's fight to save Atlantic wild salmon from being wiped out by overfishing has been awarded a top environmental prize.

Orri Vigfusson, 64, won a Goldman Environmental Prize for his efforts, which have led to a resurgence in salmon numbers in the North Atlantic.

He founded an organisation that buys fishermen's netting rights in areas along the migration route of the fish.

The award is described as "the Nobel Prize for grassroots environmentalism".

Mr Vigfusson and five other winners will receive their awards on Monday at a ceremony in San Francisco.

End of the line

"We have been killing too many fish for too long," he said, explaining what prompted him 17 years ago to set up the North Atlantic Salmon Fund (NASF), a coalition of conservation groups that works alongside governments and fishermen to end commercial salmon fishing.

"Having been a sport fisherman for over 20 years, I had been seeing the salmon stocks in rivers decline every year," he told BBC News.

Orri Vigfusson (Image: Goldman Prize)
Our ultimate goal is to return salmon stocks to historical abundance enjoyed 50 years ago
Orri Vigfusson

"I said that we had to do something about this or the fish would simply disappear."

The NASF assessed the situation and decided that the most destructive element was overfishing.

"We had to ensure that the salmon came back from the feeding grounds all over the Atlantic," Mr Vigfusson explained.

The problem began in the 1950s when it was discovered that salmon from rivers in the US and Canada, as well as from Europe, gathered in the sea around Greenland and the Faroe Isles.

A massive commercial fishing industry was established in the region, resulting in thousands of miles of driftnets across the routes taken by the fish.

After an initial surge in salmon catches, the numbers crashed. Between 1979 and 1990, catches fell from four million to 700,000.

Mr Vigfusson's philosophy was simple - to pay licensed netsmen not to fish salmon.

If driftnet fishermen, who intercepted salmon migrating along the coast to rivers, sold their licences to the NASF they received generous compensation in return.

"We believe in commercial agreements," he explained. "Over the past 17 years we have made commercial agreements all over the northern Atlantic."

The NASF began by striking deals in Greenland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands, but have now expanded across much of Europe, including Scotland, which is home to about 80% of the UK's salmon stock.

Spawning success

By raising $35m (17.5m), Mr Vigfusson's coalition has been able to "retire" net licences around many of the continent's key salmon spawning rivers.

As well as offering compensation, the NASF also finds alternative employment for the netsmen, either in sustainable fisheries or in the revived angling tourism industry, boosted by the replenished rivers.

Mr Vigfusson said his "green capitalism" efforts were already paying dividends.

"Iceland, for the past three years, has enjoyed the best seasons ever, and there has also been an increase in salmon stocks in Scotland and Canada."

But he said the job was far from done, even after winning a Goldman prize.

"Our ultimate goal is to return salmon stocks to historical abundance enjoyed 50 years ago."

Other winners of this year's Goldman Environmental Prize include:

  • Hammerskjoeld Simwinga - an anti-poaching campaigner from Zambia
  • Ts. Munkhbayar - a Mongolian who highlighted the impact of unregulated mining on the nation's rivers
  • Willie Corduff - an Irish activist who campaigned to stop a pipeline passing through a bog ecosystem

Each winner will receive prize money of $125,000 (62,400) at a presentation ceremony in San Francisco on Monday.

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