What wild Atlantic salmon’s decline tells us about the whole ecosystem — and what it can tell delegates at COP26

With COP 26 to begin on October 31, Jamie Blackett suggests delegates take a moment to reflect on the plight of salmon, a great species in decline — and one that is an indicator species that can help us gain a holistic view of the whole ecosystem.

The long-anticipated COP26 conference in Glasgow is upon us. The word crisis has seemingly been attached to anything environmental during its protracted, Covid-postponed run-up, evoking anxiety and cynicism in equal measures. But for anyone with an interest in our rivers, we have clear evidence that salmon numbers are in sharp decline, despite numerous measures to help.

Extinction of the wild Atlantic salmon during our lifetimes is a very real possibility. This is by any definition a crisis, not only for the species itself, but because the salmon, as it migrates from small upland streams through river systems and estuaries to the Arctic Circle and back again, touches on more different species and environments than almost any other. As it grows from parr to smolt to grilse, it feeds birds ranging from kingfishers to ospreys, and mammals such as otters, dolphins and seals.

“About the only thing that everyone previously agreed was that salmon numbers are falling to dangerously low levels”

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

About the only thing that everyone previously agreed was that salmon numbers are falling to dangerously low levels and the reasons are multifactorial. Every river is different, not only in its characteristics, but also in the migratory routes and destination of its salmon. We do know many of the causes and mostly they can only be solved by governments and their agencies. Certain hydro-schemes, for example, particularly large-scale ones installed in the mid 20th century, interfere with upstream migration and, far worse, kill many of the smolts during their 14-day downstream migration period. We know that open-cage salmon farms spread disease and pollute coastal waters; that inappropriate forestry schemes acidify river water; and that run-off from forestry and farming damages aquatic life. We also know that as killer whales have become close to extinction, seal numbers have risen to unnatural levels.

COP26 delegates can’t fail to see the salmon’s plight thanks to The Missing Salmon Alliance, which brings together fishermen with UK Salmon conservation NGOs and charities and has made great progress with scientific research by tracking salmon electronically (and could do more with extra funding). It has installed Salmon School, an artwork by Joe Rossano consisting of 350 glass salmon. It will hang in the delegates’ dining room — a constant reminder of the fragile nature of the salmonid ecosystem. Let’s hope they take action.

Wild Atlantic salmon facts

  • It’s a six-million-year-old species
  • Global stocks are down 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 are a food for halibut, bluefin tuna, swordfish, striped bass, sharks, seabirds, seals, killer whales, dolphins and porpoises