Champion of the salmon launches his crusade to give the king of fish a future

ORRI VIGFUSSON, an Icelandic businessman regarded by many anglers as the saviour of the North Atlantic salmon, travelled to Cornwall yesterday to see the last salmon of the millennium caught -- and then he put them back in the water.

His gesture was to highlight concern about the plunging stocks of the king of fish throughout the rivers of the Northern hemisphere, and his own plan to save British stocks by buying out commercial netting around the UK coasts.

Mr Vigfusson's North Atlantic Salmon Fund is to join with Britain's Atlantic Salmon Trust in the New Year in a plan to buy out the drift-net fishery operating off the North-east coast of England, and the fixed nets in place around the Scottish coast. Between them, the areas take nearly 50,000 fish a year.

The boss of a Reykjavik vodka company and a passionate salmon angler on Iceland's River Laxa, Mr Vigfusson, 57, has spent the last decade trying to conserve rapidly declining salmon stocks on both sides of the Atlantic by buying out the commercial fishing of the salmon's deep-sea feeding grounds off Greenland, which were only discovered in the 1970s.

His fund has spent pounds 4.5m buying up the quotas of Faroese and Greenland fishermen, who since 1983 have been the only ones allowed to fish for salmon outside coastal waters. His efforts are thought to have allowed countless fish to return to their home rivers in many countries to spawn and renew the breeding stock. Now Mr Vigfusson, with the backing of many in the British salmon angling establishment, wants to do the same for the UK.

His fund and the Scottish-based Atlantic Salmon Trust have drawn up a scheme to buy out the two main groups of netsmen in England and Scotland.

They will ask the Government to provide half the cost and raise the other half in return, with money from owners of salmon fishing rights on rivers, and a general appeal. The sum is likely to be considerable and may run into millions of pounds.

Yesterday, Mr Vigfusson travelled to the West Country for the final day of the season on the Rivers Camel and Fowey, the last places on either side of the North Atlantic where salmon could be caught before 2000. Although his efforts with his own rod brought him nothing, he was on hand when, in the wintry sunshine, the last fish of the millennium were caught on both rivers - and he was allowed by the successful anglers to put them back.

A Worcester building contractor, Stephen Barnes, took a 9lb hen fish on the Camel, below Bodmin, while Paul Eliot, who runs a fishery on the Fowey, took a 14lb cock fish near Wainsford.

Both were happy to let the gritty Icelander return them to the water. Another angler, Paul Adams from Bracknell, Berks, later took two fish on the River Camel.

Mr Vigfusson was delighted with his day. "These were historic fish, the last salmon of the millennium," he said, "and we want the salmon to survive through the next one.

"We're really concerned that the salmon in this part of the world is becoming extinct just like it has in Germany, and nearly has in France and Spain. The fish have really taken a beating in the last 20 or 30 years."

Salmon are in severe decline all round the North Atlantic, with many river shaving insufficient fish to provide a self-reproducing stock.

Although there are various theories for their decline, including global warming affecting their maritime feeding grounds, Mr Vigfusson believes that commercial overfishing is the principal cause - and it is certainly the one that something can be done about.

Netting is so harmful, he says, because a mixed stock returning to many different rivers is being caught indiscriminately - and there can thus be no managing of stocks between different rivers.

The drift-net fishery of North-east England is thought to be particularly damaging to the great Scottish salmon rivers like the Tweed, the Tay and the Dee, because the boats intercept fish heading back north along the English coast, which have travelled from Greenland into the North Sea, and then made a complete U-turn.

About 80 per cent of the drift-net fishery's catch is thought to be of fish destined for Scottish rivers. The Government recognises that there is a problem and since 1991 has refused to issue any more new licences for drift-net fishing.

Since then the number of licence holders has declined from 142 to 72, but this year these 72 boats still managed to take 25,000 fish between them, which is more than the entire rod catch in England and Wales in 1998. That stands at around 17,000.

However, any buy-out deal would have to be very generous, said the leader of the drift-net fishermen, Derek Heselton of South Shields. "It might be several million pounds," he said last night.

"We have discussed it, and the netsmen of the North-east are willing to sell to the anglers in principle, but if the rod fishing organisations want the salmon to themselves, the price will have to be right." A spokesman for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food said last night that any proposals from Mr Vigfusson would have to be looked at but they would be seen in the light of the need to conserve salmon stocks.

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