Very sad to say I’ve just had an email announcing the death, yesterday, of my friend – the salmon’s friend and so many peoples’ friend – Orri Vigfusson. We corresponded by email not long ago: I was trying to fix some salmon fishing in Iceland and Orri was trying to help me. Now I learn he had lung cancer. It is absolutely typical of Orri not to have made a fuss.
Orri was one of the most capable and wonderfully enigmatic men I ever met: a colossus of the conservation world. I remember when he showed me around his beloved Sela river in Iceland (pictured above) and explained that he had increased the salmon run there three-fold, two times over: from 300 to 900 fish and then from 900 to 2,700. His ambition was to do that one more time. He passionately believed in the concept of natural abundance: not the poor relation that we settle for in this country, where scientists calculate the minimum number of adult fish needed to re-populate a degraded stream to its diminished carrying capacity for their progeny. But the overflowing fecundity of the natural world, unfettered. Before shifting baselines dulled our sense of what nature is capable of.
More than that, Orri believed – and almost proved – we can have that abundance not just in far flung wildernesses such as Alaska, or Kamchatka, but in the developed world. Through pragmatic conservation and cussed application we can rebuild what we have lost. One of his most recent projects was an attempt to revive salmon runs in the post-industrial Machias river in Maine. But every month or so until just the other day I used get copied on another email from Orri to some government or other berating them for their myopic, tardy or hypocritical responses to critical issues of salmon conservation. He never stopped.
The first time I met Orri he was trying to create income for farmers in northern Iceland by developing the trout fishing there on the upper reaches of a salmon river. This more or less typified his work. I was there to write about it. We chatted off and on, about salmon conservation (Orri) and trout conservation (me). But he wouldn’t sit still. While I larked about fishing Orri was up before breakfast, home by midnight, nipping to Helsinki or New York in between to brow-beat a minister or court a celebrity for support and funds.
Orri called this ‘green capitalism’. In the late 1980s when salmon runs were at their nadir and in danger of nosediving to oblivion, Orri could see that the only way to make an immediate impact was to stop fishing for salmon at sea, where wild fish were being caught in their hundreds of thousands.
Coming from a fishing family he could also see that those commercial salmon anglers he wanted to stop had livelihoods. They depended on this unsustainable harvest for work. Orri didn’t agitate for the abolition of salmon netting, or the confiscation of their rights – as one might imagine would have been the approach of more purist conservationists. Instead, he went around the world raising money to pay the salmon anglers not to fish. He then raised money to help them develop alternative forms of income.
He arranged buy-outs in the Faroes and in Greenland. In fact, agreements forged by Orri now cover 85% of the salmon’s range. Drift nets have almost been eliminated (in spite of the shameful heel-dragging of the Scottish, English and Irish governments), and high-seas netting has been stopped altogether. Orri saved millions of salmon. Millions.
It is such a shame that all that time he was battling not just governments but a warming ocean. I can hardly imagine how Orri’s work might have manifested itself if the North Atlantic had been in a cooling cycle, as happened when J Arthur Hutton managed to end the netting and poaching on the River Wye and the salmon runs there went through the roof. Back then at the turn of the 20th century the sea was getting colder. Salmon are a cold water fish: they like it that way.
Equally, I hardly dare imagine what might have happened without Orri given that since he started the sea has been in a warm phase of a natural cycle (the North Atlantic Oscillation) and a warming phase of an unnatural trend (global warming). The salmon were going to have a hard time, no matter what. Orri’s tireless life’s work may have made more difference than we can ever imagine. If you live in southern England, Wales, Ireland, France, or Spain – he probably saved your salmon from extinction.
As it is, things are still not going to be easy. Without Orri, they’ve just got a damn sight harder. We’ll miss you Orri. You were a bloody hero. Wild salmon in particular and the world in general is worse off without you.