In June 2002 the Norwegian government proposed to the Storting (parliament) the designation of national salmon rivers and salmon fjords. The aim was to grant unequivocal protection, as a clear priority, to a selection of the most important Norwegian populations of wild salmon in river systems and fjords. Parliament approved the proposition with a few amendments in February 2003.
It was the government-appointed Wild Salmon Committee which in 1999 introduced the proposal for national salmon rivers and salmon fjords as one of its recommendations. The proposal was controversial from the start, provoking strong feelings in many sectors of society. Conflicts involving fish farming and national salmon fjords have been a particular focus of the public debate. The decision of parliament has been criticized for not giving enough protection to the wild salmon on the one hand – and, on the other, for going too far in imposing restrictions on the fish-farming industry.
As a consequence of the severe decline of wild salmon in its western and southern ranges, Norway's share of the North Atlantic salmon resource has increased. During the past ten years Norwegian wild salmon have come to account about a quarter of the total stocks of Atlantic salmon. Norway also has a very large number of salmon populations, which enhance variation and diversity within the species. In these circumstances, Norway bears a special responsibility for protecting the Atlantic salmon stocks.
The Norwegian catch has doubled since 1997, almost certainly because of improved conditions at sea. However, the current catch represents less than half that achieved during the seventies. About 50 national salmon populations are extinct, and a third of the 525 remaining Norwegian populations are still threatened or vulnerable, although Norway nevertheless continues to possess a unique range and incidence of wild salmon stocks.
Wild salmon also represent important national values: as a basis of commerce in the countryside, as a genetic resource for fish-farming, as a stimulus to recreational activity and appreciation of the natural environment, and as an important element in Sami culture.
The proposal for national salmon rivers and salmon fjords as accepted by parliament entails the immediate protection of 37 of the most important salmon populations. It has also been decided that the number of salmon populations included in this management regime is to be extended to a total of about 50 populations, which will account for three-quarters of the total wild salmon resource in Norway. A long-term commitment to protecting these stocks will therefore be of great significance for Norwegian wild salmon.
Given that Norway has as many as 525 remaining wild salmon populations, it follows that the most important of these must be given priority in the interest of rational and effective management.
Designating national salmon rivers and salmon fjords will be an important contribution to the work of safeguarding the Norwegian wild salmon, and with it a significant proportion of the world's total stock of Atlantic salmon. It will also promote compliance with the spirit of the Wild Salmon Committee's proposal for national salmon rivers and salmon fjords as a keystone in the management of Norwegian wild salmon.
The new management regime in more detail
The designation of national salmon rivers and salmon fjords implies that the salmon populations covered by the system will be protected from encroachment and activity in the river systems and against fish-farming in nearby fjords and coastal areas. The river systems will be subject to flexible management in that no activity will be banned outright, but each will be assessed in the context of individual rivers and potential damage to the salmon or to its spawning and growth areas.
The management regime applies mainly to large and abundant populations with high productivity, populations with high percentage of large salmon and populations of a particular genetic character. The range of populations is also well distributed geographically.
As well as being guaranteed specific protection against harmful encroachment, these populations will also benefit from priority status in the general endeavour to strengthen salmon stocks. This will apply to treatment aimed at combating the salmon parasite Gyrodactylus salaris, restoring rivers, and other work deemed necessary for strengthening individual populations.
Parliament's decision comprises three key features:
- establishment of 37 designated national salmon rivers and 21 salmon fjords within defined boundaries
- specification of principles for future administration
- framework for supplementing and amending the system
In the national salmon rivers, projects or activities that might harm the wild salmon will not be permitted. The proposition includes a concrete analysis of all such activities, and criteria for prohibiting them. The aim here is not an absolute ban, but a flexible system of management capable of modifying the restrictions according to conditions in individual rivers. This will form the basis of new legislation for the administration of the national salmon rivers.
In the national salmon fjords, new sites for farming salmonids will not be permitted. Additionally, 13 of the 21 salmon fjords will be designated aquaculture-free areas. In those national salmon fjords where fish-farming is still permitted, the farms will be subject to special regulations concerning security against escapes and health controls.
The system of temporary security zones for salmon fishing which has existed since 1989 is to be replaced by national salmon fjords. Consequently, those security zones which are not now designated national salmon fjords will be declassified. However, no new licences for farming salmonids will be issued in these areas before parliament has decided which salmon populations and fjord areas are to be included when amending the system.
Management of the national salmon rivers and salmon fjords will be determined by the relevant legislation. Necessary changes to statutes will be presented to the parliament as soon as possible after the system has been finalized. Responsibility for applying regulations concerning the national salmon rivers and salmon fjords will be shared among various government authorities. The new management regime must also be firmly grounded at local level, and provisions will therefore be made for local authorities and fishery proprietors to be involved in its administration.
The designation of national salmon rivers and salmon fjords is permanent. However, new information, new technologies and new framework conditions for the commercial interests concerned can necessitate changes in the regulations for managing these areas. The regime should therefore be reviewed when it has become possible to evaluate its concrete effects, within 10 years at the latest.
The designation of national salmon rivers and salmon fjords will be an extremely significant contribution to the work of protecting Norwegian wild salmon. In a number of important areas, however, the salmon stocks covered by the regime, like the other populations, must be protected by other measures.
National salmon rivers and salmon fjords are to be implemented in two stages. A proposal for supplements and amendments is to be presented to parliament in autumn 2005.