For this installment of Organization of the Month, we sat down with the Atlantic Salmon Federation (ASF) to learn about this misunderstood fish and the efforts to recover them. Atlantic salmon once had strong populations as far South as Connecticut and even New Jersey, but overfishing and habitat destruction decimated populations. Today, rivers in Maine and parts of Canada support many distinct populations of Atlantic salmon, but their populations all are declining and a fraction of historical levels. Follow along to learn more about this fish and ASF’s work!
Flylords: How did ASF start? Was there an event or anything that precipitated ASF’s inception?
ASF: ASF and its predecessors have been leading wild salmon conservation efforts in Eastern North American for over 70 years. The Atlantic Salmon Association (ASA) was formed in 1948, and in 1981 the ASA merged with the International Atlantic Salmon Foundation to form what is now the Atlantic Salmon Federation.
The impacts of commercial fisheries as well as the effects of DDT spraying were galvanizing issues in the early days. Our magazine, the Atlantic Salmon Journal, published its first issue in 1952. Today, ASF oversees a network of seven state and provincial councils, as well as 103 affiliated groups. In all, we represent about 25,000 members and volunteers.
In short, we’re a major conservation organization, and we’ve been in the game for a long time. That said, I think the broader fly-fishing community is perhaps unaware of our work. We really appreciate the opportunity to tell our story to the Flylords audience.
Flylords: What is the primary goal or mission of ASF?
ASF: Simply put, we’re all about restoring Atlantic salmon populations to their historic abundance. But it’s not just about numbers; ASF’s mission is wild fish in wild rivers. That means self-sustaining populations in healthy ecosystems.
Atlantic salmon are wide-ranging fish, with a complex life cycle. Like Pacific salmon, they’re born in rivers where they grow for several years before migrating to the ocean. Atlantic salmon feed primarily in the waters off Greenland, then make the journey back to their natal rivers to spawn. It’s a 2500+ mile round trip. Unlike Pacific salmon, Atlantic salmon will often survive to spawn a second or even third time.
It’s an incredible journey they make, but today they face threats throughout their whole life cycle in freshwater and marine environments. ASF is working to protect them at every step along the way.
Flylords: On that note, how does ASF work to achieve that?
ASF: Our work falls into three principal categories: science, restoration, and advocacy.
ASF has a team of world-class scientists who do some really stellar research. One of their most interesting projects is tracking wild Atlantic salmon at sea. That means capturing and tagging fish as they’re leaving rivers (either for the first time as smolt, or as adults after spawning) then following them with acoustic and satellite technology. We’re learning why more salmon than ever are dying at sea, and what can be done about it.
I love talking about our restoration work because there are some truly inspiring success stories. In Maine, for instance, we’ve worked with partners to remove several dams, opening passage to many species of migratory fish—not just Atlantic salmon. With access to important spawning grounds, Atlantic salmon are making a comeback in Maine. Returns on the Penobscot River in Maine last year were the strongest in a decade.
North of the border in Canada, we’re engaged in projects to improve habitat, especially where human activities have degraded the temperature and flow of rivers. Again, many species benefit from this work.
Our advocacy work is broad and far-reaching. We campaign against the expansion of open net-pen salmon aquaculture. Readers may know how bad that industry is for Pacific salmon, and it’s even worse for Atlantic salmon because aquaculture escapees interbreed with wild fish, reducing population size and adding domestic genes to wild populations. We advocate for better land-use where industries like forestry and mining can have negative impacts on freshwater ecosystems. And we also work toward sustainable fisheries management, which I’ll get to in more detail down below.
Flylords: I think that Atlantic salmon often tend to be shadowed by their Pacific ‘cousins’. Most don’t know the extent to which Atlantic salmon inhabited much of the United States’ east coast. Can you briefly touch on the history of Atlantic salmon and what contributed to the population collapses?
ASF: That’s a fantastic question. I feel like the epic story of Pacific salmon—their migration, spawning, and the marine-derived nutrients they bring to freshwater ecosystems—is a familiar one. But Atlantic salmon played much the same role on the east coast. There is some evidence that the historical range of Atlantic salmon extended as far south as New Jersey, and we can say for certain that they were present in Connecticut’s Housatonic River.
Along with other migratory fishes like sea lamprey, shad, and river herring, Atlantic salmon played a key role in the ecosystems of Atlantic rivers. But then humans came along. We dammed rivers, destroyed habitat, and fished salmon to near extinction. Today, a few rivers in Maine are the only strongholds for Atlantic salmon in the United States.
Flylords: Domestic fisheries are hard enough to manage and advocate for, can you speak to the international fishery management framework for Atlantic salmon?
ASF: There are no fisheries currently for Atlantic Salmon in the United States because they are listed on the Endangered Species Act. In Canada there are active recreational and Indigenous fisheries in Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland and Labrador.
There is one remaining commercial fishery for Atlantic salmon of North American origin in the world – off the coast of Greenland where Atlantic Salmon from more than 2,000 rivers around the North Atlantic go to feed. Although that fishery is very small compared to what it used to be, the best scientific advice says there is not enough fish in the sea to support it.
However, science always must be balanced with people, and Greenlanders have a right to fish in their home waters, no matter where the salmon come from, so in 2018 we partnered with the North Atlantic Salmon Fund in Iceland and signed a historic 12-year deal with the union representing Greenland commercial fishermen. The deal has an annual harvest target of 20 metric tons.
Through three seasons we haven’t hit that number yet, but real harvest reductions have been significant, fishery management measures are now better than Canada, and we have saved thousands of large fish, up to 50 plus pounds, giving them a chance to return to home rivers and put millions of eggs in the gravel.
Flylords: What is preventing Atlantic salmon recovery today? What are the primary threats?
ASF: I wish there was an easy answer to that one. Because Atlantic salmon use so many different ecosystems—from the tiny streams where eggs hatch to the North Atlantic Ocean where they feed and grow large—they face a lot of threats.
High marine mortality is affecting salmon from every river and we’re looking at some practical ways of reducing this, especially in the nearshore environment. Another big threat is open net-pen salmon aquaculture, and then in rivers we have warming waters, agriculture, development, forestry, mining, and more. It’s a lot, but we’re constructively tackling each one where and when we can and getting positive results.
Flylords: There are a bunch of really interesting scientific initiatives on your website–care to highlight a couple initiatives?
ASF: There sure are. Our Research and Environment Team is really focused on understanding why so many Atlantic salmon are dying at sea, which, of course, will help us better protect them. To that end, our scientists have undertaken some ground-breaking ocean tracking projects.
For example, they capture smolt (juvenile salmon that are leaving their natal river for the first time) and kelt (salmon that have overwintered in freshwater after spawning) and implant them with acoustic transmitters. When the fish pass by acoustic receivers in the open ocean, we get tracking data, which we can then piece together to understand how Atlantic salmon are moving around in the marine ecosystem.
Our scientists have also used satellite tracking, which is much more expensive but yields a wealth of information—fine grained data on salmon movements. Satellite tracking shows adult Atlantic salmon reaching depths of over 900m!
By correlating salmon movement with oceanographic data, we’re able to see—and predict—how salmon react to a warming ocean. That’s going to be really important in the coming years. We’re also using tracking information to learn about predators. If an acoustically tagged fish suddenly starts moving like a striped bass, or a shark, we know the salmon has probably been eaten.
Flylords: I’d be remiss if I did not bring up climate change. I certainly have read a lot about the acute fishery impacts of climate change on the Atlantic coast (shifting stocks). How is climate change impacting Atlantic salmon?
ASF: Ecosystems everywhere are changing, and nowhere are Atlantic salmon immune.
In the ocean, we’re seeing massive changes to the food web, and that’s effecting the ability of Atlantic salmon to feed, and also probably causing disruptions to their migration patterns.
While in freshwater, salmon need cold water and good streamflow. Rivers are being negatively affected by hot, dry summers, and those conditions put a lot of stress on salmon.
Flylords: Are there ways to combat those impacts?
ASF: Luckily, yes. One thing we can do, which gets immediate results, is improve freshwater habitat to build climate resilience. Atlantic salmon need cold-water refuges, and we can restore and enhance those for them.
In a lot of cases, rivers have suffered from log driving, damming, and other human uses. They get wide, shallow, and warm. By actually getting in there and reshaping the river, we can recreate channels, provide depth, and improve flow. It creates an instant boost in habitat and, in some cases, has resulted in ten-fold increases in observed spawning activity.
Flylords: Atlantic salmon and fly fishing are deeply intertwined. Do any fishable populations of Atlantic salmon remain? How do fly fishermen target Atlantic salmon?
ASF: People have been fly fishing for Atlantic salmon for centuries. Atlantic salmon are known as the ‘King of Fish.’ There’s a lot of proud heritage there, but at the same time, like many other recreational fisheries, ASF believes it’s important to make salmon fishing more diverse, inclusive, and accessible. We all stand to benefit from that.
Of course, these developments are possible because many there are still many fishable populations of Atlantic salmon. In Atlantic Canada and Quebec, there are hundreds of rivers that have recreational fisheries. I should say, too, that there are Atlantic salmon adventures that fit every budget, from the finest lodging to the do-it-yourself trip of a lifetime, and the entire range is incredibly easy to plan and do.
To answer your last question, the most popular way to fly fish for Atlantic salmon is on the swing. Salmon anglers use all kinds of gaudy, colourful, beautiful flies, and they have just as many explanations for why they work—or don’t. Salmon don’t actively feed when they’ve returned to rivers, so we still don’t really know why they take a fly.
Flylords: How can readers get involved and learn more about the Atlantic Salmon Federation?
ASF: The best way is to become a member! It’s not expensive, and it comes with a subscription to the Atlantic Salmon Journal, which is chock full of salmon angling and conservation stories. We also host fundraising events (virtual these days, but Covid will be over soon), which are a great way to meet other anglers and support conservation work.
If readers happen to be in Maine, Quebec, or Atlantic Canada they should absolutely reach out to one of our regional affiliates, who often provide local knowledge and even river maps. And finally, I’d really encourage readers to follow our weekly in-season blog, Rivernotes. It always has lots of updates on conservation work, and—most importantly—fishing conditions throughout salmon country.
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