As the plight of the wild Atlantic salmon gets worse, INEOS brings together experts from Iceland and the UK to help find a solution.
Iceland. Wild. Beautiful. Untouched. And home to one of the last safe havens of the Atlantic salmon.
But in recent years their numbers have been rapidly declining across the world – and it is now on the verge of becoming endangered.
Rather than give up hope, a small group of people in Iceland, where the species still thrives, have been investing their time and money in trying to reverse the decline, before it is too late.
INEOS’ Chairman and Founder Sir Jim Ratcliffe, a keen fly fisherman, is among them.
RESEARCHERS from Iceland and the UK are now pooling their expertise as part of a wider plan to help save the Atlantic salmon. The teams from Imperial College London and The Marine & Freshwater Research Institute in Iceland have been brought together by INEOS Chairman Sir Jim Ratcliffe.
Over the next four years, they will devote their time and energy to find out what threatens the salmon’s survival once they leave the safe haven of the Selá, Hofsa, Miðfjarðará and Sunnudalsá rivers in Iceland and migrate to the sea.
“The cause of their decline globally is not entirely known,” said Professor Guy Woodward, the lead academic working on the project.
INEOS-sponsored PhD student Olivia Morris, who will be analysing the new and old data alongside a PhD student from Iceland, said there were a number of possible reasons, including climate change, pollution, and the destruction of their habitats.
But she said, in Iceland, increased fish farming and pelagic fishing were more likely to blame.
“Iceland still has relatively healthy populations because many of the challenges salmon face elsewhere are not a major concern there,” said Guy. “But that means the likely causes in Iceland should be easier to identify and to model so we can predict future changes before they happen.”
Strengur Angling Club, which recently began leasing the fishing rights to the Miðfjarðará and the Sunnudalsá rivers, has been protecting the Selá and Hofsa for decades.
In 2004 the club reduced the equipment that fishermen could use and in 2012 introduced catch and release. Most recently they have banned the use of large hooks on the Selá river.
Over the years salmon ladders have also been built to allow the salmon to reach new spawning grounds further up the river.
The most recent - the Miðfjarðará ladder - opened in 2017 thanks to investment from Sir Jim.
“Without him we would not have been able to do this,” said club director Gísli Ásgeirsson, who said there were plans to open two more salmon ladders.
But more needs to be done.
The latest research by Imperial College and the institute in Iceland will build on Strengur’s work and inform ongoing conservation efforts.
So far, as part of the project, botanists have been planting larches, birch and willow to enrich the soil around the rivers.
“This project is very new and hasn’t been tried before in Iceland,” said botanist Else Muller. “But when you get heathier vegetation around the rivers, then you get a healthier environment for the organisms that live in the rivers. It is all connected.”
Up to one million eggs from native fish will also be planted further upstream in five rivers. The first batch were dug into the gravel in temperatures of minus 10°C.
“By planting eggs in the river, hopefully in the next five or 10 years, we will have a healthier and stronger stock,” said Jon Magnus Siguroarson, chairman of the Hofsa River Association.
The team has also tagged 1,000 smolts (maturing salmon) to discover where they go.
Together the scientific and academic teams will be trying to understand what is causing the salmon’s decline and what they need to do to reverse it.
Guðni Guðbergsson, head of the freshwater division at the Marine & Freshwater Institute, said the INEOS-funded research project would greatly help the plight of salmon in North East Iceland.
“We have been monitoring the rivers in North East Iceland for the past 40 years and that will continue alongside this project, which will give us the opportunity to further analyse existing and new data,” he said.
One miraculous fish
What all those involved in the project share is a huge admiration for the Atlantic salmon – and the struggles it has to overcome.
These incredible fish migrate thousands of miles in their lifetime but return to the same freshwater river, where they were born, to spawn.
“Sometimes they may have spent two years maturing at sea but they use their sense of smell to find their way home,” said Professor Guy Woodward from Imperial College London.
They can not only swim fast but they can jump up to 12ft.
Jim gets involved
In collaboration with the Strengur Fishing Club, which provides the best quality fly-fishing in the world, INEOS Chairman Sir Jim Ratcliffe has initiated a string of investments to help protect the land, rivers, and salmon in North East Iceland.
Eggs have been planted into the gravel in rivers further upstream to help breed a healthier and stronger stock. The salmon will spend their early life in the freshwater rivers before heading out to sea. After a few years, they will return to the place, where they were born, to spawn.
Botanists have been planting larches, birch and willow to enrich the soil around the rivers. Healthier vegetation around the rivers leads to a healthier environment for the organisms that live in the rivers.
1,000 smolts (maturing salmon) have been tagged so that scientists can track them and monitor their behaviour.
So far three salmon ladders have been built to allow the salmon to reach new spawning grounds further up the rivers. There are plans for two more.
The long-term goal for salmon fishing in Iceland
ICELANDIC rivers are world renown for their salmon fishing - and attract enthusiasts from all over the world every year.
Former US President George W Bush, who died about a year ago, was among those who fished the Selá river.
“It is impossible to describe the wonders of fishing the Selá,” he said. “It is an astoundingly beautiful river. The fish, fresh from the sea, are strong fighters and remarkably beautiful.”
But if Iceland’s salmon disappear in the same numbers as those in Norway, Scotland and Ireland, money for farmers living in remote parts of North East Iceland, where the fish currently thrive, could dry up.
For sports fishing, done respectfully – where all fish must be released carefully back into the river – brings them a good income.
INEOS Chairman Sir Jim Ratcliffe, who is an expert fly-fisherman, has been working with Strengur Angling Club, which provides the best quality fly-fishing in the world, for years.
Together they hope to see more money flowing into the club’s coffers from world-class salmon fishing, so that Strengur can expand its own business – and fund more conservation work.