An Upstream Battle

How a vodka czar is saving the wild salmon

By Kevin Friedl

The wild atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) is only a few sake rolls away from serious trouble. While its range once spanned the North Atlantic from the Hudson River to the coast of Portugal, wild stocks have plummeted due to pollution, indiscriminate dam building, parasites from commercial fish farms, and, in particular, overfishing. In the past 30 years alone, wild-salmon populations have fallen by two thirds, and the species has all but disappeared from some parts of North America.

If the tide has begun to turn recently for the fish, it’s thanks in large part to the dynamism of Orri Vigfússon, Icelandic vodka tycoon, sportfisherman, and dedicated salmon conservationist. Since 1989, Vigfússon and his organization, the North Atlantic Salmon Fund (NASF), have negotiated agreements to protect salmon in the coastal waters of Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, the U.K., Ireland, and Norway through a combination of simple but creative measures. These include buying out commercial fishing licenses, lobbying governments to enforce quotas, and training fishermen to find alternate sources of income. As a result of these efforts, the wild Atlantic salmon population has been growing over the past few years, a change that Vigfússon has seen firsthand while fly-fishing in Iceland’s Big Laxá river (he always releases his catch). This week, Vigfússon was one of six people to receive the 2007 Goldman Environmental Prize, a prestigious award for environmental activists. Plenty talked to Vigfússon about the salmon’s plight—and comeback.

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