What the decline of wild Atlantic salmon tells us about the entire ecosystem – and what it can tell delegates at COP26

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As COP 26 kicks off on October 31, Jamie Blackett suggests delegates take a moment to reflect on the plight of salmon, a large species in decline – and an indicator species that can help us take a holistic view of the big picture. of the ecosystem.

The long awaited COP26 conference in Glasgow is upon us. The word crisis has apparently been attached to all things environmental during its extended and postponed period by Covid, evoking anxiety and cynicism in equal measure. But for anyone interested in our rivers, we have clear evidence that the number of salmon is dropping sharply, despite a lot of help.

The extinction of wild Atlantic salmon in our lifetime is a very real possibility. This is, by definition, a crisis, not only for the species itself, but because salmon, as they migrate from small upland streams through river systems and estuaries up to the Arctic Circle and back again, affects more different species and environments than almost any other. As it grows from parr to smolt to madeleine, it feeds birds ranging from kingfishers to ospreys, and mammals such as otters, dolphins and seals.

“The only thing everyone agreed on before was that salmon numbers were dropping to dangerously low levels.”

Humans also benefit from a healthy salmon population and their long decline has almost made us forget the lost jobs of net fishermen in coastal communities to add to the now precarious jobs on the rivers and in lodges, the hotels and stores. Salmon need cold, clean water, critical stage food sources, and a balanced environment in which predators are not so numerous that they inflict abnormal losses. Focusing on salmon as an indicator species helps us take a holistic view of the entire ecosystem.

The only thing everyone agreed on before was that salmon numbers were dropping to dangerously low levels and the reasons were multifactorial. Each river is different, not only in its characteristics, but also in the migratory routes and the destination of its salmon. We know of many causes and most of them can only be solved by governments and their agencies. Some hydro-systems, for example, especially large-scale ones installed in the mid-20th century, interfere with upstream migration and, worse yet, kill many smolts during their 14-day downstream migration period. We know that open cage salmon farms spread disease and pollute coastal waters; that inappropriate forestry projects acidify river water; and that forest and agricultural runoff damages aquatic life. We also know that as killer whales near extinction, seal numbers have reached unnatural levels.

COP26 delegates cannot fail to see the plight of salmon thanks to The Missing Salmon Alliance, which brings together fishermen with British salmon conservation NGOs and charities and has made great strides in scientific research by following the salmon electronically (and could do more with additional funding). He installed Salmon school, a work of art by Joe Rossano composed of 350 glass salmon. It will be hung in the delegates dining room – a constant reminder of the fragile nature of the salmonid ecosystem. Hope they take action.

Facts about wild Atlantic salmon

  • It’s a species six million years old
  • Global stocks have fallen 80% since 1996
  • It could be extinct in many places by 2050
  • Freshwater juveniles are eaten by trout, kingfishers, cormorants, mergansers, ospreys, herons, otters
    and mink
  • Atlantic salmon is a food for halibut, bluefin tuna, swordfish, striped bass, sharks, seabirds, seals, killer whales, dolphins and porpoises

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