Orri Vigfússon.

Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize.

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“I have a passion for salmon,” says Orri Vigfússon. “It’s the king of fish. It’s just a spectacular creature.” Vigfússon is a veteran business exec — the Icelandic brand Icy Vodka is one of his enterprises — and he’s now using his negotiating savvy to protect the iconic North Atlantic salmon. Since the late 1980s, his North Atlantic Salmon Fund has raised money to buy netting rights from commercial fishers and create economic alternatives to the salmon business. The group has also brokered several moratorium agreements with North Atlantic nations, leading to an estimated 75 percent drop in commercial open-sea salmon fishing.

Vigfússon hopes he and his allies will soon bring an end to salmon fishing in the North Atlantic, and he continues to recruit support from anglers and fishing communities on both sides of the pond. “Every year I have to come up with new creative ideas for how to raise money, through receptions and dinners and so on, but it’s become fun,” he says.

Vigfússon, 64, was awarded one of six 2007 Goldman Environmental Prizes at a ceremony in San Francisco on April 23. He spoke to Grist from San Francisco.

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When did you first realize that the North Atlantic salmon were in trouble?

In 1981, there was a collapse. We had very, very cold temperatures in 1979, and when we were waiting for the salmon runs two years later, we learned that the coldness had led to a collapse in the fishing. So I decided to look around and see what the hell was happening, and by 1988 I’d decided that we really needed to stop all commercial fishing for salmon — by net, by long-lining, and so on.

Harboring hopes for the future.

Photo: Golli

I come from a herring family, so I know quite a bit about the background of fishing — we were always thinking about the market price and the latest technology. And my family had a part in the overfishing of the herring stocks in the 1960s, so we had to stop fishing for herring for many years. The problem with all the world’s fisheries is that we’re killing too many fish for too long — that’s the essence of it.

So I set up the North Atlantic Salmon Fund. We recognized that the commercial fishers have the historic right to exploit the salmon, and decided that we needed to compensate them fairly — and not just fairly, but generously. We don’t believe in government resolutions. We decided that we needed to have firm commercial conservation agreements, because once you have those sorts of agreements, the industry really respects them. If they don’t, if there’s foul play, then no one would get paid. So those commercial conservation agreements are very, very important — I’d like to see them used to manage fisheries all over the world.

What reactions did you get from commercial fishers when you first proposed these buyouts?

My first treaty was in the Faroe Islands. They said, “OK, we will try it, just give us some time to think about it,” and two months later they were ready to negotiate. So my friends and I had a meeting in Oslo, a dozen of us, and developed a basic strategy for me to negotiate, and I started to negotiate in the Faroe Islands in December 1989. One and a half years later we signed the treaty. It usually takes some time, you know, because we don’t just pay cash over the counter. We try to help the fishers develop alternative jobs so that everyone can be a winner.

How do you go about developing alternatives?

I’ve worked quite a lot in helping develop new manufacturing businesses in rural areas, and I’ve been a banker and so on. So I have a lot of ideas and resources. I just go and talk to the netmen and I say, “Look, what are you doing? We need to find a new way for you.”

It’s important that you work with them, and help them develop their own ideas. Sometimes it’s been difficult to get them to agree to relinquish their rights, so I say, “OK, if you don’t want to do it in perpetuity, let’s do it for two or three years and see what happens.” So of course they don’t want to be idle, they are looking around, and if they see an opportunity, they say, “OK, let’s go!” I always emphasize that these guys must be compensated generously. I now have between 2,500 and 3,000 agreements with netmen, and I want them to stay on being happy forever.

What do you consider your greatest successes so far?

Our most successful project has been providing a lumpfish industry in Greenland — Greenland has now become the world’s largest producer of lumpfish caviar. I had one guy in 1991 in the Faroe Islands who came to me and said, “Now Orri, you’ve taken away my livelihood. How the hell are you going to help me?” We sat down, and eventually he worked out a way of using his boats to service the oil exploration industry. I think he now has 26 boats all over the world, in Alaska and in Singapore, and he’s doing extremely well. One lady came to me with fishing rights on the west coast of Iceland, and she said, “Orri, I want to set up a shop.” She also had cows, so she set up a special cheese shop, and that’s what she’s doing now. We have a lot of interesting projects like that going on.

When do you think your campaign will be over?

Goldman Prizewinners
Meet the winners of the 2007 Goldman Environmental Prize:
Ts. Munkhbayar of Mongolia
Willie Corduff of Ireland
Orri Vigfússon of Iceland

Probably in two to three years’ time. We recently had a very big agreement with the government of Ireland — they decided to ban driftnetting, but I think the way they plan to do it is not good enough, so we plan to follow that very closely. We’ve done a pilot scheme in Norway, and that has worked extremely well, and we’d like to slowly expand that to the rest of Norway.

I’m hoping that [once we end salmon fishing in the North Atlantic], my organization will then turn to more in-river stuff, helping to build up stocks. We encourage all the sportfishers to practice catch and release to help increase the stocks of the rivers. So it’s not only buying up the nets, it’s also catch and release, and improving the in-river habitat. I’ll probably do that for the rest of my life.

I’ve heard you have a favorite fishing spot.

Catch and release, of course.

Photo: R. Randolph Ashton

I fish a lot in Scotland, Russia, Norway, and of course where I live, in Iceland. I try to stay in Iceland in July and August. The Big Laxá is my all-time favorite river. It’s a heaven for birds as well as salmon, and it’s a very beautiful area. The pools are extremely — just very, very nice. There is no other river like it. And of course, I release all my fish.