Management Angels and Demons in the Conservation of the Atlantic Salmon in North America
Abstract.—The Atlantic salmon Salmo salar in North America is much depleted. Present population abundance may be only about 4% of that at the time of European colonization, and almost all populations in the southern third of North America are at risk of biological extinction. Anthropogenic and natural factors have contributed to this situation. This paper reviews the biology of Atlantic salmon, documents current population status and management in North America, and identifies challenges to restoration. Atlantic salmon migrate from home rivers within the USA or Canada to ocean feeding areas in waters off the coast of Greenland where they mix with conspecifics from Europe. Exploitation during this migration and in interceptory fisheries in home waters posed a severe challenge to conservation of spawning populations. To address the impacts of the Greenland fishery, the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization (NASCO), an international body with members from all Atlantic salmon producing countries, was established to set fishing quotas in the Atlantic Ocean and to pressure governments not respecting the quotas. In Canada, coastal commercial fisheries were also phased out to favor the more lucrative recreational angling industry. To provide incentives for reductions in commercial harvests, at least one wild salmon conservation organization initially supported salmon farming, which could provide commercial markets with a cheap source of fresh salmon. The phenomenal success of this industry helped shut down the interceptory commercial fisheries; however, its potential impacts on wild Atlantic salmon were not anticipated and some remain problematic. At present, adult salmon returns in North America remain near historic lows, and below conservation requirements. However, some rivers are producing surpluses, recreational fishing continues, and the key management goal is rebuilding North American returns. Live-release angling has been employed in many jurisdictions where harvest fisheries would pose conservation risks. While the practice has helped address the risks, a debate has been incited about the morality of angling should fish feel pain and show “awareness.” With traditional fisheries management options failing to bring relief, rebounds in wild Atlantic salmon populations will depend on upturns in marine survival, ecosystem repairs, restoration of lost salmon production potential, and innovative interventions.