Orri Vigfússon has been called the most honored angler on earth. But to Vigfússon, the fish is the thing—specifically the wild North Atlantic salmon, or as it is often called, the king of fish.
Vigfússon grew up on the north coast of Iceland in a fishing family that watched its herring catches disappear as the fish population declined. When, in the 1960s, he began to notice a decline in salmon returning to Iceland’s rivers from their ocean feeding grounds, he resolved that this species would not fall victim to high seas or coastal netting.
A businessman with diverse commercial interests, Vigfússon became a philanthropist, founded the North Atlantic Salmon Fund and has spent the past 17 years fighting to preserve a species that, when he began, was endangered and becoming more so.
He began with the belief that professional fishermen have the right to earn a living. Hence the fund’s guiding principle that every netsman who volunteers to stop salmon fishing must receive fair compensation and help in finding alternative employment.
That is the basis of the commercial agreements that now protect the salmon’s high seas feeding grounds off Greenland, Iceland and the Faroes, the shores of Canada and northeast coast of the USA, the coastal waters of England, Wales and Northern Ireland and, most recently, the Trondheim region of Norway and coastal Ireland.
The fund’s second guiding principle is that salmon management is best left to the private sector. This is based on Vigfússon’s experience with several Icelandic angling clubs which successfully run some of the country’s best-known salmon rivers.
This private sector strategy has been both effective and rewarding. Iceland’s wild salmon are now key contributors to the national economy. Across the North Atlantic, private incentives have enhanced conservation efforts and the value of salmon to fishermen, landowners and rural economies.
Vigfússon, now the fund’s international chairman, has been honored by Denmark, Iceland, Britain’s Prince Charles and, most recently, with the Goldman Environmental Prize, which annually goes to six grassroots environmentalists.
Vigfússon plans to use the $125,000 prize to attract matching funds that will improve the river spawning grounds for his king of fish.
PHILANTHROPY: Many Americans, including philanthropists otherwise involved in conservation issues, may not be familiar with wild Atlantic salmon. Could you talk about why it is such a prized fish and how it contributes to North Atlantic economies?
MR. VIGFÚSSON:The North Atlantic salmon is thought of by many as the king of fish. It is a spectacular creature, and it has a very exciting life history. It’s born in a river as an egg and spends two to five years in the rivers before there is a chemical change in the body of the fish that produces an urge to go to sea to feed.
They go out into the Atlantic, whether they are from the United States, Canada or Europe, and they spend one to five years feeding on the high seas, normally in the area where the surface temperature is between four and eight degrees Celsius.
Then they get the urge to go back home to spawn. They always find their own home rivers—or that’s how the story goes. For example, most of the salmon from rivers in New England seem to feed off the west coast of Greenland before returning to the rivers where they were born.
These rivers are usually located in rural areas, and salmon fishing usually provides a very high proportion of the income of the people who live in those areas. On the west coast of Iceland, probably 75 percent of farm income comes from sport fishing. The farmers operate lodges and provide fishing guides. A typical farmer gets 50 to 70 percent of his income from that. And then he runs a pony trekking operation, or perhaps has rug-making equipment.
Whatever the farmer’s other sources of income may be, salmon fishing is important. Salmon are very exciting game fish, so people pay very high prices to come and fish for them.
PHILANTHROPY: When did you first become aware of the overfishing of salmon in the North Atlantic, and how did you respond?
MR. VIGFÚSSON: I come from a fishing family, a herring family in the northern part of Iceland. We overfished herring in the 1960s, which taught us a very bitter lesson. I started sport fishing for salmon around the same time.
Every year, in the late 1970s and 1980s, we saw fewer and fewer salmon coming back from the ocean. I know from many anglers in other countries—from Scotland, Norway, Canada, and everywhere—that the same thing was happening. In 20 years’ time, the annual catch of salmon in the North Atlantic dropped from about 12,000 tons to about 2,000 tons, about an 80-percent decline.
So we came up with the idea of making commercial conservation agreements. We believe in commercial agreements more than government regulations, which have never brought efficiencies anywhere.
Just as important, the industry seems to respect commercial agreements. If there is foul play, people don’t get paid. It’s as simple as that. I started the North Atlantic Salmon Fund in 1989, and over the last 17-and-a-half years, we have orchestrated these major commercial agreements almost every year.
We started in the Faroe Islands in 1991, we did Greenland in 1993, Iceland in 1996, and Wales in ’97 and ’98. We did the Bristol Bay, southwestern England, and Northern Ireland. We made a major agreement in the North Sea in 2002. Every year for the past five years, we have rented out the salmon fishing rights in the Atlantic Pyrenees.
A few weeks ago, the Irish government finally agreed to stop fish-netting for salmon. This year, Scottish officials announced they would not be renewing the license for salmon-netting off the northern part of Scotland.
PHILANTHROPY: What is the difference between what the people of Iceland, for example, can make catching salmon on a commercial basis, netting them at sea or using drift nets near the river mouths, versus what they can make from sport fishing?
MR. VIGFÚSSON: Commercial nets in Iceland really stopped a long time ago. There were only a few patches that I had to buy up in 1996. Probably a better example is Ireland where we figured out that they would probably get about $6 million to $8 million from their commercial fishing activities. By turning to the sport fishing industry, they would probably be able to generate revenues of $200 million.
I actually took out a full-page advertisement in the Irish Times about five years ago, which said that even a child can understand why a £80-million industry is better than a £2-million industry. Why can’t the Irish government?
PHILANTHROPY: In places where you have made the changeover, could you give an example of how the economy has changed?
MR. VIGFÚSSON: Well, where I have bought most of the fishing rights, like from the Greenlanders and the Faroese, we have created new alternative sustainable fisheries. Instead of netting for salmon, they are now catching lumpfish, snow crab, turbot, big shrimps and so on.
Lumpfish scatter throughout the North Atlantic. They come into the shallow waters in February, March or April to spawn, and that is when they are caught. You only harvest the roe, and the roe are then exported as caviar. In Greenland, we don’t just pay them cash over the counter; we help them redirect their boats, change to lumpfish, and operate an automatic long lining machine or line hauler.
We also teach them how to catch snow crab, which we picked up in Canada when the collapse of the Grand Banks occurred and there was no more cod off Newfoundland. Much of the industry turned to snow crab fishing there, and we taught the Greenlanders how to do that.
But the big money has come from lumpfish. Greenlanders are now the biggest producers of lumpfish in the whole world, so big that we have overwhelmed the market and are now trying to expand the world market for lumpfish caviar.
PHILANTHROPY: What makes commercial solutions to these problems more effective than governmental solutions?
MR. VIGFÚSSON: Back in the 1980s, we took a critical look at what was happening. There were all these scientists and governmental managers. There were intergovernmental treaties, officials establishing quotas and so on. We found that it didn’t work properly.
Commercial agreements work because the industry fully respects them.
We also promote the philosophy that salmon stocks should be managed by the private sector, by the stakeholders themselves. The government should only intervene if there is a problem, if there is a disagreement. That is how most of the fisheries in Iceland are managed. Every year, there is a scientific assessment of all the fish stocks around Iceland, and then the government gives out quotas of approximately 20 percent of the fishable stock.
That is the rule of thumb for how much should be fished. Then we can trade these quotas. Someone can buy my cod quota, and I can buy their halibut quota. If I have a halibut business, there is no need for me to go out and catch as many halibut as quickly as possible. I catch just enough to feed the market and maintain the highest price.
With this system, you not only increase the number of fish and the resilience and diversity of the stocks, but you also get very, very high prices. So Iceland now enjoys one of the highest incomes per capita in the whole world.
PHILANTHROPY: How do you divide your time between your work on this cause and your business interests?
MR. VIGFÚSSON: I come from a herring family. After the herring all but disappeared, I started a small-town business. I then helped establish manufacturing industries in the rural areas of Iceland.
You might remember, about 25 years ago, when the hippie generation was wearing sort of a long sweater from the woolen industry in Iceland. That was very, very successful. So we set up a lot of little cottage industries.
One of the ideas that I came up with was to make the ICY vodka. I still have that operation on the west coast of Iceland. It is premium vodka, which we used to sell in the United States and we sell to Russia. I made a lot of money from that operation. It is still going on, but I don’t find much time to spend, because all of my time is spent with salmon.
I then redirected our herring money into the Bank of Iceland. The bank has now expanded into other regions, buying four banks and financial institutions in Scandinavia, Norway, Sweden and Finland. The bank has set up offices in Halifax, Luxembourg, England and China, actually because of geothermal energy. We have undertaken to heat a Chinese city using Icelandic heating technology. We hope to set up an office in New York in September. Until last year, I was a director at the bank. I still have some investment there, and that has been very successful. But again my involvement with the North Atlantic Salmon Fund has become a full-time endeavor.
PHILANTHROPY: How do you support the North Atlantic Salmon Fund and sustain the commercial agreements to halt the netting of salmon?
MR. VIGFÚSSON: When I started NASF, I thought everybody would come running around with money to pay for this, but that was not the case. Fortunately, I met the people at the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and they offered grants. They gave me $250,000, provided I was able to raise $500,000.
The State Department gave me about $500,000, which we have used every year since. NASF is a voluntary organization; nobody gets paid. I have 200 or 300 people in an international network of experts: biologists, experts in maritime law, a speechwriter who used to be the editor of the Daily Express in England. I have to raise about $750,000 a year for our high seas agreements, not counting what we need to take care of salmon in the feeding grounds. I generally go into different communities to buy the local nets; I try to raise most of the money in those communities.
I work with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Atlantic Salmon Federation, the Atlantic Salmon Trust, and NASF groups in Denmark, Germany, France, and very effective groups in the south of England.
The NASF US is a 501(c) charity, and so we are able to channel funds through that. I was very lucky in the beginning that I met with the Bass family of Texas, and they gave me very generous support in my first few years.
I have 30 to 50 wealthy individuals and foundations who support the fund each year. They are all philanthropists concerned with environmental issues. Some give directly, others through foundations. And, of course, I contribute myself.
PHILANTHROPY: Have you noticed major differences among countries in the number of sport fishermen? Which country has the highest interest in preserving the salmon?
MR. VIGFÚSSON: I think the interest in conserving salmon is highest in the United States. American citizens are mostly aware of the problems, and they know they have to put their hands in their own pockets and do something. But it is growing also now in Europe. It’s very slow in the Scandinavian countries because they are very socialistic.
The people who used to come to Iceland were mostly from the U.S., but now they are mostly from Great Britain. British citizens are now more willing to come and pay more for sport fishing, provided that these agreements are maintained. We have found a lot of new fishermen, U.S. fishermen in particular, that go quite a lot to Russia, as well as Canada. We have found more and more fishermen coming from France and Germany. They also come from Italy, Spain and Japan.
Two-thirds of the fishermen in Iceland are Icelanders themselves, and Icelanders and Europeans have also become very, very rich and want to spend their money. The success of the Icelandic banks has been astronomical over the last few years. Now investors and financial institutions are buying up most of the rivers in Iceland.
PHILANTHROPY: It is fairly well documented that differences exist between Europe’s and America’s approaches to private versus government involvement in finding solutions to problems. Has that made your job easier here and harder there, or has it had any impact at all?
MR. VIGFÚSSON: In the beginning, I think I was very lucky to get in touch with America because these types of solutions appeal to North Americans. When I started 17 years ago, this was not the norm in Europe, and people expected government to do everything.
When we went to negotiate, there was always somebody there with me from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, as well as from the State Department. That is in absolute contrast to the European Union, which I think is the only entity in the whole world that has actively tried to put roadblocks in our path. They believe the government should set the rules, and everything will be fine.
Individual governments have sometimes been easier to deal with. In the beginning, the British government didn’t like my idea at all, but in the end, there was a review group which told Tony Blair that maybe he should support this.
When we did the North Sea buyout in 2003, we made a deal where the government provided one-third of the money while we raised two-thirds and agreed to do all of the negotiations and solve all of these sensitive local political issues.
The Environment Agency in England came to a negotiating table, gave both sides all of the information, and never interfered in anything. They behaved like governments should behave.
The key is to convince governments and commercial fishermen that the value created out of these arrangements can be extraordinary. The value of our river in the north of Iceland, for instance, increased in the last 15 years from $500,000 to more than $30 million. And the income of the farmers has probably increased twentyfold.
Everywhere we have succeeded it has been by convincing the stakeholders that we can save the salmon and save jobs at the same time.