The salmon leap

Towards the end of the Cambridge conference, one of our contributors, who knows more than most people do about the decline in global salmon populations — enough, that is, to know that we need to know much more, particularly about the Atlantic salmon, Salmo Salar — pointed out one sad consequence of that decline for our attempts to engage the public imagination with the plight of this extraordinary creature. We just don’t see as many of them as we used to. Whether or not we think of the caged pens of salmon farms, so much of the drama and perils of their lives happens under water, so little within our own line of sight, that it becomes harder for us to imagine them: and if we struggle to do that, then it’s too easy to lose, or never learn, a sense of wonder at their life-cycle. And if we never learn it ourselves, or find a way of sharing our wonder with our children, our grandchildren, those future generations will risk growing up with only a word to remind them of the wild beauty of these fish and of all they represent, and have represented, for so many ecosystems, so many linked cultures, for so many thousands of years.

That said, one encounter can seal that sense of wonder, keep it fresh for years. A boy at eleven was taken one Christmas to stand beside a raging weir on the river Tanat on the Welsh borders and watched, and shivered, in excitement at these huge fish leaping, falling back, leaping again. Almost forty years on, the example of Ted Hughes set me on my own search for salmon. And then, one afternoon in July 2014, I saw them leaping again, at Aasleagh, on the borders of Connemara and County Mayo. Twelve hours of rain made the Erriff roar, and glancing across the main falls I saw something silver flash, and then, not daring to believe my eyes, caught it or another with my lens, sunlight glinting on it against the foaming white of the water.

That set me watching for more of them. It was, in the midst of that tumult, easy to miss the smaller fish, nibbling, snouts probing, feinting in the thresh of the water under the wall, then thrusting themselves up. Oddly they seemed to ignore the concrete steps of the fish ladder close against the southern bank; instead they congregated in the froth pot below a much higher challenge, impossibly high it seemed. But still they leapt. The wild oxygenated water drew them; its seaward rush brought the best out of the sea, grilse and sea-trout too. I watched them for over an hour that afternoon, crouching on a spray-drenched rock.

Late that same evening, on Connemara’s southern coast, Terry and I met another tribe, fresh in on the salt of the high tide at the mouth of the Owenduff at Toombeola Bridge, feeling their way into fresh. We were following a tip off: an otter had been seen there, downstream of the bridge, the dusk before. But the head we saw break the surface, and then the back, and then the other heads and backs, belonged to a different race. Others since have told me they were mullet. They weren’t. Risking half a dozen casts, I hooked and held and lost one, which leapt, twisting against me, and came free. Salmon all right. Terry missed that; he was on the bridge, already writing this.


A Shoaling at Toombeola Bridge


They came marauding up with the tide

under the bridge between salt and freshwater

gathering themselves in the greatness of their condition,


remembering this shadowed place, this taste,

those far skylarks, this dark entry to the birth place,

the old underworld to be their gravelled graves.


Between peat banks their decompression chamber

is a river, risen by recent rains in the big Bens,

where they wimple their fins on the water surface


in silver flashes of strength for the falls ahead.

Fat from the sea, beyond feeding now, feeling

that thrust upstream that powered them past


the nets in the neck of the bay and around foul

plugs from the pipes of white shoreline homes

towards the leaks and overflows of small farms


they must outrun and hopeful rods tempting

with the flick of a handmade fly, now they shoal

at dusk under the fading furnace of the west.


Terry Gifford, A Feast of Fools (Blaenau Ffestiniog: Cinnamon Press, 2018) 

There can never be enough of these meetings. And the evidence of statistics, surveys, however imperfect as yet, is that they are getting rarer. Nets, and salmon cages, and sea lice, and pollution, and the physical obstacles — weirs, dams — we continue to put in the way of wild fish’s progress up river, and the rise in sea temperatures and the thousand other perils their salmon face, as smolts on their way downriver, at sea, to and from their feeding grounds, and on their journey home, to spawn and die, are helping to see to that.

So we need to keep on the look out for salmon, and wild rivers, and unimpeded swimlanes, where we can find them. In print, online. In the days since the conference, friends have been sending me links, sightings, from both sides of the Atlantic. Here is the first in what we hope will be a series of gatherings, shoalings.

It began the day after, on Friday 13th December, with NASCO’s own report, State of North Atlantic Salmon. Emma Hatfield, NASCO secretary, had given it a trail when she spoke at our confrence. It is powerful because so broad and interdisciplinary in its scope. And it features a fine article co-written by another of our speakers in Cambridge, Martin Lee Mueller, author of Being Salmon, Being Human. A copy of the report is available from NASCO.

Then a member of our audience began sharing revelations. First came this fine ‘Poem of the Month’, from The Guardian newspaper on October 12th: ‘The Poet’, by the Alaskan poet John Elvis Smelcer, from Poems from the Edge of Extinction: An Anthology of Poetry in Endangered Languages, edited by Chris McCabe (John Murray, £16.99. Smelcer’s poem, below David Cheskin’s fine photograph of that upside down half moon of a fish in flung flight, does exactly what we all need to do: it recognises the vulnerability of the salmon and giving it voice makes it our own, by speaking so powerfully from real experience, a specific time and a place, a culture, threatened.

The week before Christmas, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a fascinating episode of ‘Crossing Continents’, which itself combined a sense of the cultural and mythological value of the salmon with urgent environmental crisis. In the great Finnish poem cycle, the Kalevala, the first spark of fire falls into a lake, where it is swallowed by a white fish, in turn eaten by a salmon, and recovered by a fisherman. Tero Mustanen is a Finnish fisherman-turned-climate scientist, who believes that rewilding his country’s peat fields and wetlands against huge commercial and political pressure from government and corporate interests of the peat industry can be a means of mitigating Finland’s contribution to climate change. It’s a story that ends as it begins, with the salmon, the oldest animal.

The following day, on 20 December, The New York Times highlighted another confluence of salmon and commercial pressures, this time in the semi-autonomous Danish territory of the Faroe Islands. The Faroese economy depends on fish exports, including very significant exports of farmed salmon of high quality. According to the Faroese closely consolidated industry website, the Faroes are ‘where salmon thrive‘. Their open cages are sited in the cool Northern Atlantic waters that provide feeding grounds for over-wintering wild Atlantic salmon from European river systems far to the south, but without the proximity to local populations that has wrought such terrible decline on wild salmonids in Norway, Scotland, Ireland and England. Strong currents around the archipelago’s eighteen islands, low sea temperatures, low stocking density and stringent regulation is, the Faroese industry maintains, responsible for high quality and sustainable production, free of the antibiotics which affect other open-cage farmed salmon. Faroese farmed salmon is now being exported in significant and rapidly growing quantities to both Russia and China. Which perhaps explains both the ferocity of another high-tech trade dispute also hitting the Faroe Islands, and the discomfort it it causing the islanders.The dispute is part of the ongoing technological cold war between the USA and China, where intense American pressure is being exerted on the Faroese not to purchase Huawei equipment for the 5G mobile phone network the Faroese are installing. The article quotes this vivid testimony from Torshavn resident and academic at the University of the Faroe Islands Rógvi Olavson, on what it’s like to be “squeezed by the U.S. on one hand and China on the other.” “It is a lice [sic] between two nails.” It’s unclear whether Mr Olvason, who works in the department of History and Social Sciences, had Lepeophtheirus salmonis in mind… Maybe not.

Ted Hughes wrote a wonderful poem, ‘The Morning before Christmas’, about a frost-crisp morning in 1979, spent with his son Nicholas and the photographer Peter Keen watching men from the North Cornwall fisheries board stripping salmon eggs and milt from a fish trap at Hartley Weir on the River Lyd, a tributary of the Tamar. Later he wrote ‘Salmon Eggs’, imagining the salmon spawning in a turbid January River Torridge.  Both poems appeared in River (1983).  On Christmas Eve this year Ness Fishery Board published something almost as good: this underwater footage of salmon spawning on their gravels, and a small opportunist trout….


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