The Fall and Resurrection of the Vosso Salmon

How biologists are racing to revive the ‘king of fish’ in Norway

High above the Bolstad Fjord, perched on a scaffold set into the cliff-top hut, Helge Furnes watched with the intensity of an osprey for a monstrous salmon to enter his trap of netting laid out on the river bottom. A pair of heavy stones, connected to the net by a system of ropes and pulleys, was hoisted up to the bottom of the hut. Once the fish entered the trap, Furnes yanked the end of the rope, setting off a chain reaction: The stones dropped towards the ground, their falling weight pulled up the lines tied to the corners of the net, and the trap closed, capturing the fish within.

Fishery BiologistsPhoto by Kevin Bailey Biologists Knut Vollset and Bjorn Barlaup ashore, and conservationist Helge Furnes in the skiff.

This method of fishing for salmon on the Bolstad Fjord, known as sitjenot, dated back at least 150 years. Furnes’s father also harvested the Vosso salmon. The fish are mostly gone now, and Furnes no longer fishes the sitjenot. The fishing huts sit, still perched on the cliffs or on poles above the fjord, like ghostly sentinels watching over the passage of the remaining salmon.

The Vosso salmon is the stuff of legends. Once they were the largest Atlantic salmon in the world, based on average weight. Some behemoths tipped the scales at more than 36 kilograms. Catches of salmon in the Vosso River system were relatively stable for hundreds, maybe thousands of years, averaging about 12 tons per year. Then suddenly, in the late 1980s, the numbers began to nose-dive. The fishery collapsed in 1991 and was closed in 1992. For all practical purposes, the wild stock of Vosso River salmon went extinct. The “King of Fish,” as they had been called, were no more.

The decline of Atlantic salmon was not unique to Vosso — similar decreases in other European salmon stocks occurred at about the same time. But what happened in Norway after the collapse probably couldn’t happen anywhere else.

When oil was discovered in the North Sea in the 1960s, Norway struck it rich. Enormous wealth was generated by sovereign control of the oil fields, leading to a system of taxation on oil extraction and direct production by the state-owned oil company. The Norwegians invested generously in infrastructure, social welfare, and research. In response to the salmon declines, Norway’s government funded conservation efforts. With extra resources provided by hydropower companies, scientists had the unique foresight to create a living gene bank near the community of Eidfjord in the Hardanger Fjord system south of Bergen to preserve the genetic diversity of salmon. Here, live fish from different wild stocks were kept in land-based fish farms. Among the preserved stocks was the Vosso salmon.

In 2000, fisheries scientists teamed up with the Norwegian government, local governments, universities, and the power and salmon farming industries to revive the wild Vosso River salmon. By then, about 70 percent of the salmon entering the river to spawn were escapees from the nearby salmon farms and the remaining “wild” fish were likely hybrids. The scientists believed that this was a “now or never” situation; the remaining fish were unlikely to survive because their specialized local adaptations had been diluted by breeding with the farmed fish. They initiated a program to plant the river with smolts of the native Vosso stock cultivated from the Eidfjord farm.

Fifteen years after the rehabilitation program began, native Vosso salmon are back in the river, migrating to the ocean and returning to spawn as they once did. The problem now is that the naturally spawned offspring aren’t surviving. The fish that return to the river from the ocean are young salmon grown in hatcheries, which are hauled to the ocean in big cages and released there. Something is still wrong in the Vosso River system, and the mystery has generated a lot of controversy.

A Trip on the Fjord

The Vosso River is about 80 kilometers east of Bergen on the west coast of Norway. The strong deep flow of the river carves through rocky cliffs and winds its way past green pastures dotted with red barns and yellow houses. It is a picturesque setting. Voss is a sleepy village, maybe best known as the birthplace of legendary American footballer Knut Rockne. A little farther downstream, when the river escapes from the mountains and widens, it’s called Bolstad. The river empties into the Bolstad Fjord, which then joins a complex inland fjord system spreading 100 kilometers to the ocean.

The Voss region was settled about 3000 years ago by hunter-gathers. The evidence for salmon use by the prehistoric men is about as old as the first recorded occupation. Later, farming took hold in the fertile valley and Vikings inhabited the area; there is a Viking burial site near the town of Voss. In 1023 AD, King Olaf V converted the region’s pagans to Christianity, just around the end of the Viking era.

My hosts at Vosso were Drs. Knut Vollset and Bjorn Barlaup of Uni Research, a consulting offshoot of the University of Bergen. I knew Vollset from nearly a decade before when he spent six months in my lab as a visiting graduate student. Barlaup, Vollset, and Furnes (the ex-sitjenot fisherman) took me on a boat tour of the river system to learn about the Vosso salmon recovery effort.

The waters of the fjord on this autumn day were calm and smelled faintly trouty. We stopped to climb up into one of the sitjenot huts, which was as rickety as it looked. The huts aren’t used for commercial fishing anymore, but scientists now use them to study the salmon. They told me about one of their young unmarried scientists who had spent several lonely years in a hut counting salmon as they passed through the maize of nets below. His disheartening adventures in finding love while residing in the hut were a topic of mirth in the local community. The arrivals of young women at the hut were telegraphed across the riverbank and followed almost as closely as the passing of salmon in the river.

Fishing Hut NorwayPhoto by Kevin Bailey A cliff-top fishing hut in Bolstad Fjord. Scientists now use the huts to study the salmon.

After our tour of the river, we visited Furnes’s farm. He lived with his wife Kirsti on the roadless side of the fjord in a neatly kept yellow house perched on the steep hillside. They raised sheep, a skittish breed with a crazed look in their eyes. There was an old cable and tram system to cross the fjord in an emergency when the waters were too rough or ice too thin to make the trip by boat or on foot. Stepping onto Furnes’s farm was a visit to another era, a privileged trip back in time. Furnes was about to turn 80 years old. His body was lean and his eyes sparkled with enthusiasm. After we scrambled up a steep hillside to his house, we took off our boots and coats in the mudroom and entered a warm cozy kitchen. We sat at a four-person table next to a window overlooking the fjord, while Kirsti served us fresh blueberries and waffles for an afternoon snack, washed down by black coffee. Unable to keep up with Barlaup and Vollset, I limited myself to four servings. Kirsti bustled about the kitchen; she seemed disappointed by my performance and encouraged me to eat more. In the meanwhile, Furnes talked.

The words flew off Furnes’s tongue as if they’d been waiting for just this opportunity to escape. His eyes widened with excitement as he chattered in Norwegian. Occasionally Vollset translated for me, “I think there’s a point to this, but he keeps diverting from the story to describe where he finds different berries.” It seems the berry patches were cairns marking the path of Furnes’s narrative.

Vollset went on: “Now he’s telling a story about his uncle Sivert Furnes who was sickly when he was born. It was the middle of winter, maybe about 1890. February. His parents thought Sivert was going to die, so when the baby was just a few days old they swaddled him and began to hike the icy trail over the mountains to the nearest church in Stamnes. Sivert needed to be baptized before he passed on. On a steep part of the climb, his grandmother slipped on the ice. The baby fell from her grasp and slid down the hill on his backside like a sled. Whoosh. Missing trees and rocks. The bundle came to a stop just short of the edge of the fjord. They retrieved the bundle and continued on to the church.”

Sivert didn’t die that winter after all. Instead, he grew into a healthy man. But times were tough, the farm couldn’t support another potential family, and so when he was 17 years old Sivert emigrated to the United States. It’s said that there were so many immigrants in America who had come from around the Furnes farm, at one time they made up a whole football team in Iowa. Sivert returned to the region around the Furnes farm as an old man in the 1960s and was often seen sitting by the fjord near the salmon nets, singing old folk songs from his youth.

In a moment of reflection over coffee, Furnes commented that people would often tell him how hard his life must be on the edge of the fjord, especially without a road. He pointed out a resort-like lodge up on the hill behind him that a millionaire from Bergen had built. On the weekends his neighbor helicopters in to this country manor. Furnes said, “My life can’t be so bad. After all, people like my neighbor work like dogs for weeks in the city in order that they can enjoy a few days living here.”

Returning to the topic of salmon, Furnes pointed out that in the old days the huts were carefully placed to put the nets in the path of the salmon. The fishermen stained the cliffs white with lime to trick the fish into thinking there was a waterfall above, intending the fish to veer towards it and into their traps.

photo of Atlantic SalmonPhoto by Matt Hintsa An Atlantic salmon. For all practical purposes, the wild stock of Vosso River salmon went extinct in the early 1990s.

In the old days, sitjenot fishermen were proud of their skill. There was a friendly rivalry amongst them; each would keep an eye on the neighboring huts to see what they were catching. When fishing was good, a big catch was up to 50 fish. The local fishermen also expertly guided tourists from England to fish for salmon in the Vosso River, as the giant fish were famous worldwide and prized among tweedy fishing connoisseurs.

The Decline of Salmon

The sudden demise of the Vosso salmon stock after thousands of years of existence points a finger directly at the activity of man, although who specifically is responsible is a subject that generates controversy. The relationship between salmon and humans in the Vosso River ecosystem is complex. As in other complex systems, the instinct of man to engineer and tame nature for his own purposes has had unforeseen consequences on salmon and other species.

A slow steady decline of Atlantic salmon across the Atlantic Ocean tracks human industrial development in salmon habitats. Wild stocks have disappeared from over 300 river systems in Europe and North America. Salmon are endangered in another one-third of their native rivers. But in the past three decades, the population decline has accelerated, with the total population falling by 80 percent across the salmon’s range.

Salmon are doing somewhat better in Norway than in most other countries. Still, a recent report on 180 salmon populations that make up about 95 percent of catches in Norway, classifies only 36 percent of them as healthy. And from 1983 to 2014 there was a 50 percent decline in salmon abundance across all of Norway.

These declines may be strongly linked to fish farms: In Norway, nearly 70 percent salmon declines have occurred on the country’s west coast, where salmon farms are most developed. The arrays of salmon farm pens in the water trouble fisheries biologists, as they contain fish in very high densities, up to 200,000 fish per cage. At such high densities the transmission of diseases and parasites can threaten wild stocks. In the south and north of the country where there are fewer farms, the wild salmon stocks have held steady.

Barlaup reported that even among the west coast fjord systems scientists noticed smaller-scale patterns with respect to fish farms and wild salmon health. The coastal stocks inhabiting areas with fewer salmon farms have been doing better than those in the fjords where the farms are concentrated. Populations that originated deep in the fjord systems and which have to run a longer gauntlet of the farms, were doing poorly as well, yet another indication that the commercial salmon farms influence the well-being of wild salmon populations.

Indeed the Scientific Advisory Committee for Atlantic Salmon Management believes that the two greatest threats to wild salmon in Norway are sea lice from the salmon farms and the threat of escaped salmon from the sea farms mixing with the wild stock — it’s been estimated that over 10 million farmed salmon in Norway have escaped into wild salmon habitat. (The salmon industry, which holds significant power in Norway, has challenged these findings, pointing to other factors like the predation on young salmon by sea trout and hydroelectric dams as primary causes.)

Though it’s likely salmon farms are playing a large role, they aren’t the only thing causing problems for wild salmon. In the 1980s, the Vosso salmon were positioned at the confluence of a maelstrom of man-made factors that would influence the fish’s fate, including acidification of the river system, where salmon spend their first two years of life, hydroelectric development, increased siltification of the river bottom from road and railway construction on the river bank, flood control, and loss of habitat. Changes in ocean temperatures may also affect mortality during their two to four years of life at sea. All of these things, and probably other as yet unrecognized factors, have had a cumulative effect on salmon survival over the past three decades.

The smolt-release program was developed to revive the stock of native Vosso salmon, but the program doesn’t just involve pouring fish into the river. Scientists have used the smolt release program to learn more about the Vosso ecosystem. Research has begun to show results that are helpful in revealing the underlying causes of survival patterns.

In particular, these studies have shown that survival rates vary depending on where smolts are released. Those smolts released at the coast have a much higher likelihood of returning to the system after their years at sea. Smolts released in the mid-fjord have an intermediate level of survival, while those released in the river itself have very poor survival rates. There still seems to be a critical process at work within the fjord system that could bode poorly for a completely natural and self-sustaining run of salmon.

Moving Forward

We can speculate on the cause of the Vosso River salmon extinction, but it’s largely a futile exercise to prove a single cause among the tangled web of factors. In the public debate, scientists hired to represent different industries and factions will have different versions of what has happened, and the data to demonstrate cause and effect are lacking.

Some scientists believe that, rather than point fingers, we need to focus on providing the healthiest environment possible for the stock to be productive, and try to mitigate human-induced effects where scientific studies indicate there may be problems. And already, progress has been made to mitigate the effects of acidification and river flow variations on salmon survival. Liming of the rivers has returned the river to a normal level of acidity, but doesn’t seem to have had much effect on smolt survival. The hydroelectric industry has altered their methods of operation to improve conditions for smolt. Flows are regulated to maintain at least minimum requirements. Lower water levels resulting from dams and flood control engineering resulted in lost habitat, which has now been restored.

Why are the Vosso River salmon important to preserve?

“We expect African countries to preserve lions and elephants, shouldn’t a rich country like Norway preserve the Atlantic salmon?” Barlaup asks. “It’s a cultural icon, part of the national heritage, and is something important to the identity of the local people. If we hadn’t done something, the world’s largest Atlantic salmon, adapted to the largest fjord system of western Norway, would have disappeared without anyone knowing what happened — all within a decade.”

What is more, if preservation efforts are successful, the Vosso River system could be a world treasure and a site for research and outreach to exemplify the complexities of how fish interact with the natural world, how man interacts with nature, and how man interacts with fish.

After coffee at Furnes’s house, we toured his boat shed. Vollset and Barlaup told me how active Furnes had been in restoring the Vosso salmon after the collapse, sharing his knowledge and helping with the sitjenot traps biologists now use to catch and measure the fish. Indeed, it was apparent they treasured the man. Inside the boat shed there were several double-ended open hull boats over a hundred years old; his old nets hung from the ceiling as if they were waiting for the salmon to return.

We climbed into his skiff and he motored us across to the other side of the fjord for our drive back to Bergen. After Furnes dropped us off, he zoomed across the fjord back to his home, leaving a broad wake behind him.

In the evening as I looked over my notes, I thought of many more questions I wanted to ask Furnes, but I was flying out the next day. I thought it shouldn’t be a problem, I could always return to Bergen for a follow-up interview.

A few weeks after I returned to Seattle, Vollset wrote me a note. I sat in the stillness of the room, reading that Helge Furnes had passed away. He was chasing his sheep in the steep meadows behind his house when his heart failed. An image of Furnes scrambling after the sheep on the hillside breathes in my mind. I felt blessed to have spent a few hours with him, catching a glimpse of his life with the great salmon.

Disclosure: The author has consulted for UniResearch as a paid science program reviewer on the predation of Vosso River salmon smolts. UniResearch is a strategic research partner of the University of Bergen and is owned by the university and its research foundation.

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