Most of us see salmon on the supermarket shelves. This is farmed salmon and it bears almost no relation to its wild cousin. Farmed salmon are kept, hundreds, thousands to a cage, and stuffed full of antibiotics to keep them from getting diseased. They can hardly move; their tails, which should be magnificent, powerful and fan-like are stumpy and nibbled (in boredom, fish do terrible things to each other). Whereas a wild salmon will be (should you ever be lucky enough to see one) torpedo shaped and with fighter genes - the weak ones would long ago have been dealt with by nature - a farmed salmon will be flabby, almost balloon shaped and with any old pissy genes you like.
Because these cages are kept in the sea, off our coastlines, as the wild salmon go past, the sea lice and other parasites that infest the cages think "yippee, new flesh" and attack the wild fish who, because they are not stuffed full of drugs, suffer badly from this barrage, if they survive at all. One particularly lovely parasite is called Gyrodactylus salaris and it covers the salmon, eating it dead. (Sea lice and parasites are an accepted part of sea life, the problem is that the cages concentrate them and act as a breeding ground.) And sometimes these cages break open and the fat, pale salmon get out and breed with the wild fish, thereby introducing their weak genes into the chain.
Why salmon are facing extinction is due to many things, some of them known, some not. Commercial netting - where this is still allowed - pollution, bank erosion that destroys their breeding ground (the place where they were also born and to where they return), environmental changes, genetic weakening by breeding with farmed salmon, and Something Else. Something happens at sea, where they go to feed for a year or three, and we don't know what. "Something terrible is happening in the ocean," says Bill Taylor of the Atlantic Salmon Federation.
This year, our government imposed various netting/rod and line restrictions which were the subject of another column. In Maine, in north-east America, the wild Atlantic salmon may be proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act. Once 500,000 salmon returned to the New England rivers, last year just 60 to 120 found their way back to the rivers in Maine, which is a decline of 99.9 per cent (and it is not due to the salmon's navigation system, which is excellent). If relative figures were applied to something cuddly like pandas or tigers there would be an outcry and once-attractive French actresses would hold press conferences. But we are talking about fish, cold-blooded, slimey creatures that will never grace a chocolate box. You could try to argue here that, by being a fisherman, I am not helping their plight. But you would be wrong.
That I know any of this is because I am a fishermen. Fishermen notice when river banks have been eroded by cattle or sheep, thus making the river too shallow and silty for the salmon to breed in. Fishermen much older and wiser than I first noticed that something was very wrong when they saw the numbers of salmon returning to spawn decrease alarmingly. I spend very much more time learning about salmon and helping their plight than I do fishing for them or eating them. They are, anyway, notoriously difficult to catch.
If you'd like to learn more about salmon there are various bodies that can help such as the North Atlantic Salmon Fund based in Iceland (Skipholti, 105 Reykjavik, Iceland email: firstname.lastname@example.org). Or, you can email me: email@example.com