Millionaires, celebrities and royals from all over the world have traveled to Norway for years, to fish for wild salmon along the country’s scenic rivers. Now the annual catch has sunk to a new low, worrying locals and nature lovers in addition affluent sport fishing fans.
“This is dramatic,” claims Torfinn Evensen, secretary general of Norske Lakseelver, which represents 123 groups that manage rivers known for their wild salmon. Evensen told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) this week that the record-low levels of salmon in the rivers is “a concrete example of the nature crisis we’re caught in.”
New statistics show a steep decline in Norway’s wild salmon catch from 2022 to 2023. A total of 70,593 salmon were caught last year, with around 19,000 returned to the river to help preserve the species. The catch in 2023 compares to 97,678 in 2022. That reflects a year-to-year decline of nearly 30 percent.
“It’s a desperate situation for everyone who cares about Norwegian nature,” Evensen told NRK. He doesn’t hesitate to put the blame squarely on the commercial and controversial fish-farming industry, because of the infectious disease it can spread to wild stocks.
“A unified research community points to the fish-farming industry (called oppdrett in Norwegian) as posing the greatest threat to wild salmon,” Evensen said.
He wants to see the number of fish-farming facilities set up in fjords and along the coast greatly reduced. “The most important thing is to gain control over lakselus (salmon lice that can lash on to farmed fish),” Evensen, and over the numbers of farmed salmon that escape from their nets in the fjord (called merder).
“If we’re to rescue wild salmon for the future,” he added, “the number of fish farms in open production facilities must be reduced dramatically.”
Wild salmon is now under such a threat that several rivers have been closed to sports fishing. The threat has been highest in popular rivers including the Jølstra and Lærdalselvea, and researchers like Torbjørn Forseth at the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research (NINA) have been worried for a long time.
He also points to tougher survival conditions in open sea that can be blamed on climate change. “In Norway, salmon lice is the dominating factor,” he told NRK. “It take the life of lots of salmon on their way out to sea, especially in Vestlandet (Western Norway),” along with other diseases that spring up at fish farms and can quickly spread. “That can also infect wild salmon.”
Norwegian salmon producers, already under pressure over a string of alleged violations in recent years, firmly deny they’re to blame for the demise of Norway’s wild salmon. “More than 95 percent of all wild salmon die in the sea,” claimed Henrik Wiedswang Horjen, communications chief for the fish-farmers’ organization Sjømat Norge, in a written comment to NRK. “Nor is there any connection between the calculated lice outbreaks and the wild salmon that return to the rivers the next year.”
Horjen claims his industry is also concerned about the disappearance of wild salmon, and is using great resources to control lice outbreaks.
There’s also been a sharp rise in the numbers of so-called pukkellaks, part of the foreign sockeye salmon family that’s increasingly showing up in Norwegian rivers. More than 110,000 pukkellaks were taken out of Norwegian rivers last year, passing the record set in 2021. They pose a threat to both the farmed Atlantic salmon and the wild salmon in Norway.
Signs of the decline in wild salmon started showing up early during last year’s summer fishing season that begins in June. By August, newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) could report that most realized it would be the worst catch ever, also in the rivers Gaula, Namsen and Målselv.
DN reported on Tuesday that Norway’s fisheries directorate will now sharpen the rules for how salmon producers must count and report how many fish they’re placing in their merder. State officials need to know how many escape, in order to alert river managers and monitors, but they often don’t get the cooperation they need.
“Many (farms) report that none of their fish has escaped,” Britt Leikvoll of the directorate told DN, only to learn that they never counted how many were set out. That’s a “clear violation” of aquaculture regulations, she said, adding that salmon producers can expect much tougher demands for reporting accurate fish counts and losses.