‘Owned by everyone’: the plight, poetry and science of the salmon


This is the home page of an international conference held on 11-12 December 2019 at the Cambridge Conservation Initiative and Pembroke College, Cambridge, with the support of Pembroke College, the CCI, Salmon & Trout Conservation and Patagonia. At the close of the International Year of the Salmon, delegates came from Alaska, British Columbia, the United States, Norway, Sweden, Ireland, Scotland and England, inspired by a shared passion to understand and do all we can to protect wild salmon and to persuade others to join us.

We will shortly be publishing details of this unique gathering of fisheries biologists, anthropologists, poets, anglers, conservationists, behavioural ecologists, environmental historians, literary critics, a folk singer, a member of the Sami Parliament, and representatives of the NGO members of the Missing Salmon Alliance, and of the research, experiences and stories of the salmon they brought to Cambridge from across North America and Northern Europe.

But once we’ve done that, it’s also our hope that this will become a different and wholly benign kind of net, one which will catch the latest research on salmon, and salmon in the news, alongside also links to images, stories, poems, sculpture, art, through which salmon swim.

A July salmon leaping the falls at Aasleagh, County Mayo, Ireland


Pembroke College Cambridge was founded in 1347, and is the third oldest of Cambridge University’s 31 Colleges. Its distinguished alumni number world-leading scientists, politicians, musicians and poets, amongst them the poet, fisherman and conservationist Ted Hughes (1930-1998). 

The Cambridge Conservation Initiative is a is a unique collaboration between the University of Cambridge and leading internationally-focused biodiversity conservation organisations clustered in and around Cambridge, UK. Based in the University of Cambridge’s David Attenborough Building, its reach is global, and it builds networks between scientists, conservationists, artists and the general public through a number of events and publications.

Salmon and Trout Conservation is the UK’s only independent charity campaigning nationally for the protection and healthy habitats wild fish need.



This conference, co-hosted by the Cambridge Conservation Initiative and Pembroke College Cambridge, and convened with Salmon and Trout Conservation, was inspired by the example of the British poet, environmentalist and by his own admission ‘obsessive salmon fisherman’ Ted Hughes (1930-1998). For over thirty years Hughes dreamed and caught and wrote of salmon, raising his own voice and pen in their defence. ‘I offered all I had for a touch of their wealth.’ The salmon smolt, he knew, is ‘Owned by everyone’: he regarded the salmon itself as ‘the weaver at the source’, not just of the rivers and seas it connects, but of our understanding of habitat fragility and responsibility for its protection.

Ted Hughes fishing on the Itchen, by Dermot Wilson

Two days of talks on the salmon’s life and cultural significance followed Hughes’s campaigning example, generating conversations across disciplines as well as national borders, and with the aim of stimulating new action. The conference brought together those who value the salmon, from Norway, Iceland, Greenland, Canada as well as the United Kingdom: fisheries scientists and environmentalists of course, but also representatives from the polar first nations, cultural historians and anthropologists, literary critics, artists, story-tellers and fishermen-conservationists, among them at least one who has swum and filmed in a salmon cage, and four who fished and worked with Ted Hughes himself.

The International Year of the Salmon has proved that Salmo Salar has its champions. Fisheries scientists, environmentalists and anglers understand more than ever about this most totemic of creatures. They recognize the ‘thousand perils’ Hughes knew it faced, water quality, predation, pollution, and agriculture, and now climate change, throughout its mysterious and heroic journey from spawning gravels high up streams and rivers of the Northern Atlantic to its feeding grounds off Greenland and back again. But the salmon still needs a voice.


Through a series of short talks, chosen to inspire non-specialists and share their own sense of wonder at these fish, extended panel discussions, readings from Hughes’s work and from Pembroke College’s remarkable collection of the poet’s manuscripts, books and fishing tackle, our invited speakers explored the state of the art and science of the salmon, and addressed the best ways of responding to the grave dangers it now faces. After drinks and a film screening in Pembroke College, where delegates were offered accommodation, a conference dinner was held in Pembroke’s Old Library, with our after-dinner speaker the distinguished fishing writer, novelist and memoirist David Profumo, who fished with Ted Hughes. The Old Library is directly below Hughes’s undergraduate rooms — he was a student at Pembroke from 1951-54. The College now has a unique collection of his manuscripts, printed books and fishing tackle, as well as his ink-stained writing desk and chair, which sit below specially commissioned stained glass windows to Hughes’s poetry.

Our first morning began by comparing the results of recent genetic mapping of distinct Chinook populations in different rivers of the Pacific North West. Some runs are in steep decline, others thrive. Why? What might we learn from the remarkable taxonomies for salmon that indigenous cultures have developed over centuries of living with these fish? And what might these insights teach students of ‘the different tribes’, as Hughes described them, of English and Scottish and Irish Atlantic salmon? We heard of the genetic diversity of the Atlantic Salmon populations and sub-populations not just across Europe but also across the range of England’s southern coast, from the West Country to the iconic chalk streams of Wiltshire, Hampshire and the Thames.

The upper Taw, high on Dartmoor, a few miles from Hughes’s home 

Our attention then turned to the different habitats on which the health of the salmon has always depended, from clean spawning gravels to abundant invertebrate life in free flowing cold water streams, to the rivers, estuaries, coastal waters and oceans that smolt and mature salmon must negotiate en route to and from their polar feeding grounds. How many smolts make it out to sea, and how many are lost there? What if any human interventions can make a positive difference to these rates of survival and return? And what can we learn from philosophy as well as observation as we learn to renew and enliven our responsibility for the salmon?

Stump Pool on the Torridge, the subject of a fine poem by Hughes, ‘Stump Pool in April’

Of all these habitats, it’s the river that remains the site of richest human interaction with and management of salmon. It’s where we catch them, or at least catch sight of them, in all their heroism, leaping water falls, enduring months of abstinence, moments of madness, as they prepare to spawn. Here Hughes’s own example is particularly apt. It was the rivers of Devon, Scotland, Ireland and Alaska that inspired his most memorable writing about salmon, in his collection River (1983, revised 1993) and elsewhere. The river is, as Hughes put it, ‘engine of earth’s renewal’, but his experience of fighting to save the river Torridge in the 1980s proved to him how fragile an engine it could be, how much its efficiency and the benefits to all who lived in and beside it depended on sustainable management. Inspired by the example of the Tweed, Hughes co-founded the Westcountry Rivers Trust in 1993. In the years since his death, the Rivers Trusts have done important work around the world to mitigate and reverse the impacts of the agricultural and economic exploitation of rivers. What can Hughes’s example teach us about the limitations as well as benefits of today’s catchment-based approach? And what do recent successes of a campaign to close a salmon farm at the mouth of an iconic Highland Loch fishery and catchment and so seek to halt a catastrophic decline in wild fish stocks tell us about the importance to the local economy, community and ecology of the restoration work to come?

The Weir Pool at Beam on the River Torridge — another of Hughes’s favourite pools. Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter was born here. 

Losing the battle to save a river is also to risk the loss of everything the salmon has brought home to mankind and a host of other fauna and flora for centuries wherever it has run: every kind of nourishment, physical, spiritual, cultural. A scholar of medieval Welsh writing, two poets from County Mayo and Northumberland and a leading folk singer and song collector shared stories, images and songs. We need to keep our heads and bodies full of wild salmon if we are to help it endure: as Hughes observes, ‘What alters the imagination, alters everything’. Tony Juniper, founder of Friends of the Earth and Chair of Natural England, chaired this panel.

Stone carvings of eel and salmon at Scone Castle, Scotland

And never before has the salmon been in such need of our impassioned defence, its place in our imaginations. In 1993 Hughes wrote of ‘the thousand perils’ it faced, from natural and human predators and degradation of their habitats: he wrote passionately about drift netting, water abstraction, agricultural run offs, intensive farming, salmon farms and the other obstacles we put in their paths, from weirs to surfactants. Three decades on, climate change, shifting patterns of predation, the commercial exploitation of wild fish, the horrors of sea-lice contamination of wild genetic fishstocks by farm escapees and the disastrous unintended consequences of hatchery and sticking programmes designed to compensate for the construction of barriers to the salmon’s progress upriver to spawn have left us in no doubt as to its plight.

Our second morning began with talks from a leading American fisheries scientist on the perils and politics of hatcheries, from a negotiator with Greenland nets fisheries on ongoing attempts to limit the harvest in the salmon’s feeding grounds, from an anthropologist who has worked with the Yurok and Inuit peoples of Alaska on the cultural, economic and political balancing act of managing competing claims on northern Alaska’s salmon-rich waters, and from a conservationist campaigning star of Patagonia’s ARTIFISHAL on the shocking realities of the salmon ages and the steps we can and must take to effect swift change.

At stake is not just the salmon itself, as keystone species, and the health of the ecologies and species it sustains. It is also the question of our own relationship of with the natural world the salmon expresses so powerfully in all its fragile wonder. 

Two closing sessions focused, first, on the individual and spiritual benefits of fishing, and on the ways individual fisherman and women and the Sámi people have managed to sustain and to renegotiate their attitude to the king of fish over generations of declining fish stocks, and to justify fishing to themselves and others.

Another age: from the Grimersta archive. Photograph: Ehor Boyanowsky

Finally, in a panel session chaired by the broadcaster and conservationist Joe Crowley, we looked forward, both to the challenges of saving the salmon and its habitats and to the best ways of working together to inspire the next generation to join us before it is too late. In 1992, Hughes wrote, of a friend’s successful court case to protect water quality on a tributary of the river Exe, that he had given the salmon a voice. As the International Year of the Salmon draws to a close, how can we ensure that scientists, poets, conservationists, do the same, speak in concert and make others — from politicians to consumers to school children— understand and respond to the totemic value of this silent hero?

In the coming days, full details of the programme will appear here; so, we hope, will some of the presentations given, and links to key resources, including a film by David Attenborough and Salmon & Trout Conservation and the Patagonia feature ARTIFISHAL.