One of Europe’s most incredible fisheries is under threat. Globe-trotting angler and photographer Matt Harris is a Reisa River regular. He weighs in on what’s going on.
The Reisa River is one of a triumvirate of three celebrated Norwegian Atlantic Salmon Rivers perched high in the Arctic circle. Along with its sisters, the Alta and the Lakselva, the Reisa has traditionally produced huge Atlantic salmon – fish of up to and beyond fifty pounds. These fish are unique, and only a handful of rivers in the world can boast fish of a similar size. I’ve been lucky enough to travel all over the world, yet it’s no exaggeration to say that Reisadalen is one of the most stunningly beautiful environments that I have ever seen. Clean, clear waters come tumbling out of the spectacular canyon at the head of the river, winding through the pristine silver birch forests, with the ramparts of the magnificent northern mountains towering all around. On the east bank, Mollisfossen, at 269 metres, the highest waterfall in Europe, crashes down into the valley, and in the summer, the floor of Reisadalen is wreathed in wild flowers, and plays host to moose, golden eagles and wolverine.
In days gone by, it was utterly sustainable to catch and kill the Reisa’s salmon with rod and line, and even to net the river and estuary. Those days are long gone. The savage impact of open-cage aquaculture, the netting of the salmon and of their prey on the high seas, and the myriad impacts of climate change and pollution have all had a devastating impact on salmon stocks worldwide, and the Reisa has been no exception. The Reisa’s salmon run has diminished dramatically, and is now less than a third of what it was less than a decade ago. While we respect people’s traditions, it is simply no longer sustainable to net the Reisa’s estuary. Despite this, illegal netting continues unchallenged, and a small number of people are even allowed (under Norwegian law), to legally indulge in this destructive practice. This selfish action, by just a tiny minority, has a massive impact on the stocks, and is systematically destroying the river’s salmon population. Once the run is finished, it is over, so we have to act now to protect and sustain the fishery’s fragile salmon stocks.
The Way Forward
Along with my friend, Roar Olsen, the owner of Reisastua Lodge and a passionate salmon angler himself, I have helped to establish ReddReisalaksen – Save the Reisa Salmon – a charity committed to saving the Reisa’s salmon stocks.
Our initial aim is to bring an end to all netting (both legal and illegal) that impact on the Reisa salmon stocks. While the Project respects the netsmens’ traditional practice, we believe that it is simply unfair for a very small number of people to so profoundly and selfishly damage the fishery for the vast majority of the other river users, who are rod-and-line fishermen. These rod-and-line fishermen also have traditions of their own, and they outnumber netsmen by at least 100-1.
Crucially, rod-and-line fishing has a much lower impact on stocks, even if a limited number of fish are allowed to be taken. However, we believe that the fish stocks need to be sustainable before any catch and kill fishing is again allowed, and believe ALL killing of salmon needs to end (with immediate effect) until populations return to a healthy and sustainable number.
We aim to raise funding in order to buy out the nets, ideally with a one-time, one-off payment and, additionally, to finance effective and comprehensive policing of the local marine environment, with support from local and national government.
We believe that it is the duty of both local and central government to support this conservation initiative. Norway’s wild Atlantic salmon are the largest in the world, and are an iconic part of the country’s culture. We want to bring popular pressure to bear on the government so that they recognize their obligation to protect and nurture this unique natural resource.
In the medium term we aim to tackle the broader issues. The connection between intensive open-cage salmon farming and smolt depletion due to the artificially high proliferation of sea-lice is proven and well-documented. Salmon farming is now possible in closed containment tanks that produce a much healthier product for the consumer and will immediately address the issue of sea-lice proliferation, with profound and immediate benefits to the smolt population of the Reisa.
We want to see urgent, strong, sustained pressure brought to bear on the salmon farming industry and want to engage with government and corporate sponsorship to enforce this much needed change. We want to establish agreements with the salmon-farming industry, but will not hesitate to employ an aggressive policy exposing the terrible damage that the salmon farming industry has done.
The salmon farming industry is a billion dollar business, and its value to the Norwegian economy cannot be denied, but it has been allowed to treat Norway’s marine environment and also the welfare of local communities that depend on sport fishing revenue, with contempt. The industry does not employ huge numbers of people, and makes a negligible contribution to local economies. Sport fishing can bring valuable revenue into local economies, but we are fast approaching a tipping point where dwindling fish stocks will render sport-fishing pointless, and anglers will simply not bother (or fish elsewhere), leaving nobody to look after the welfare of the Reisa’s salmon.
The project wants to reach out to the local community and worth with them in harmony. We want to see young, passionate local anglers, like Christer Vangen, allowed to enjoy salmon fishing just as the last generation was able to do. We want to encourage and nurture the younger anglers so that they believe that salmon fishing is a worthwhile and stimulating pastime. If we don’t, we believe that salmon-fishing – and the salmon themselves – will die out very quickly.
We simply cannot let that happen.
You can learn more at www.reddreisalaksen.com – please help us – your support would be hugely appreciated.
All photos courtesy of Matt Harris. For more, visit www.mattharrisflyfishing.com