Iceland vodka baron buys off drift-net fishermen to save British wild salmon

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Britain's dwindling stocks of wild salmon are to be saved following a multimillion-pound deal orchestrated by an Icelandic businessman who made his fortune selling vodka to the Russians.

Drift-net fishermen in north-east England, who for centuries have intercepted migrating salmon moving up the coast to Scottish rivers, have agreed to give up their licences to catch the fish in return for £3.4m compensation.

The deal is being hailed as the most important salmon conservation measure for 30 years – and it should aid a major recovery for famous salmon rivers like the Tweed and the Dee, where catches have been falling for decades.

The buyout has been organised by the North Atlantic Salmon Fund, headed by Orri Vigfusson, flamboyant owner of a Reykjavik vodka factory and a passionate game angler.

The NASF's UK operation has persuaded landowners and organisations with an interest in salmon fishing as well as anglers all over Britain to put up £2.15m. The remaining £1.25m will come from the Government, which is keen to promote measures to reverse the disastrous decline in wild salmon numbers.

There are 68 netsmen operating from the Yorkshire and Northumberland coast, between Whitby and Holy Island. Between them they take nearly 44,000 salmon a year - equivalent to half of all the salmon caught by rod and line in England and Wales. They operate about a mile off the coast from boats using large floating nets to intercept migratory salmon.

Netsmen have traditionally been at loggerheads with anglers, who pay up to £1,000 a day to fish on stretches of Scottish rivers. Under the deal, 52 netsmen are expected to give up their licences this week – before the start of the salmon-netting season on 1 June.

Andrew Whitehead, secretary of the UK NASF, said: "This will be the biggest wild salmon conservation measure in three decades. The north-east drift-net fishery is not only the largest, it is also the last significant mixed-stock interceptory fishery in British waters."

As Derek Heselton, whose family has netted salmon off the north-east coast for nine generations, said: "This is not something we are going into lightly. This is an ancient tradition – there's been a fishery here since 1780 and there's actually been salmon fishing in Northumberland since the year 900.

"But because of legislation introduced in 1986 we cannot pass on our licences to our sons, and a lot of netsmen have decided that we've fought anglers for years and, reluctantly, we may as well take the honourable way out."

Over the past 20 years salmon populations around Europe and North America have fallen to precariously low levels. Apart from the depredations of commercial fishing, the decline is thought to be caused by diseases spread to wild stock by poorly managed farmed salmon as well as pollution and destruction of upstream spawning grounds.

The Atlantic salmon fund was originally set up by Mr Vigfusson who, in the spirit of taking coals to Newcastle, made his fortune selling vodka to the Russians. Regarded by many as the saviour of the Atlantic salmon, he has spent the past 15 years travelling all over Europe and North America persuading netsmen to trade in their licences.

So far the NASF has raised £15m to buy off commercial fishing rights in the north Atlantic feeding grounds around Iceland and Greenland, as well as offshore in Norway, France, Wales and south-west England. Another £5m has come in contributions from the UK and Norwegian governments.

Mr Vigfusson has been personally negotiating a £2m buyout of Northern Ireland nets- men. His next big target is a huge drift-net fishery in the Irish Republic, which takes hundreds of thousands of salmon bound for rivers in western Europe where they return to spawn. Mr Vigfusson, who practises "catch and release" angling, whereby every salmon caught is returned alive to the river, said: "The problem with netting salmon at sea is that it takes huge numbers of fish and it's indiscriminate – so you could be taking fish bound for rivers that are already seriously depleted.

"Netting goes back hundreds of years, but most of the netsmen themselves are now agreed that with the present state of salmon stocks this kind of fishing cannot continue. My dream is to bring salmon back to the great rivers of Europe like the Loire, the Rhine and the Dee in the abundance we saw 100 or 200 years ago."

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