Wild Baltic salmon back from brink of extinction but sustained action must continue

Efforts to protect and restore wild Baltic salmon populations, which faced extinction during the mid 1990s, have started to show promising results with 2001 stock levels reaching about 70% of the estimated potential capacity for 27 Baltic salmon rivers, according to the latest figures from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES). However this is in stark contrast to the situation in the smallest rivers in the Bothnian Bay and Estonia, where levels remain at an alarming low level; and considerable work is required to rehabilitate spawning areas in many Baltic salmon rivers, according to the Helsinki Commission, HELCOM.

Over one million more wild Baltic salmon were produced in 2001 than in 1995, raising the annual yield of juvenile wild salmon from 0.3 to over 1.3 million. Eight rivers have reached the 2010 target of 50% production for salmon rivers set in the Baltic Salmon Action Plan (1997-2010), drawn up and introduced by HELCOM and the International Baltic Sea Fishery Commission (IBSFC) and a few of the larger rivers exceeded their estimated potential production levels. Most of the larger salmon populations in the Bothnian Bay are at a “promising status”, but, according to HELCOM, there is still uncertainty over the potential production level in each river indicating the need for a further review of maximum production capacities.

HELCOM points out that the future sustainability of wild Baltic salmon will depend on the impact of the debilitating M 74 syndrome on fish populations and the growth of commercial fish farming. In 1998, the total production of farmed fish in the Baltic was approximately 22,400 tonnes, with Finland the largest producer.

While fish farming is generally being encouraged, in preference to over-exploiting wild populations, the need for further research into the introduction of commercial fish farms is stated in the Baltic 21 Action Programme established in 2000. This takes account of the aims of the Baltic Salmon Action plan, and includes specific references to ensuring fish farming is sustainable.

In particular, Baltic 21 says that fish farms should only be allowed within geographically defined borders between the coastline and four nautical miles out to sea; and the actual size of each farming area must be planned and decided on a national level in relation to the occurrence of wild salmon in the area. This should also take account of the geographical distance to the nearest wild salmon river, and the route and timing of the spawning migration of the wild populations. The aim of Baltic 21 is to achieve sustainability in the Baltic region by 2030, and the fisheries sector expects to meet this target well ahead of schedule.

HELCOM’s last assessment of the Baltic Sea environment, covering 1994-1998 said that current levels of fishing for salmon were unsustainable, and warned that collapse of the stocks could only be prevented if fish are allowed to reproduce until their populations recover to biologically safe levels. It also reported that to compensate for the loss of natural salmon stocks, hatchery-reared smolts are widely released into rivers and along coasts, especially around the Gulf of Bothnia. A total of 6.4 million hatchery-reared smolts were released in 1998, compared to estimates for wild smolt production during the same year of about 0.5 million smolts.

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