The missing salmon

Words by Nane Steinhoff
Photographs by The Missing Salmon Alliance

Atlantic salmon populations are in rapid decline all over the world. The Missing Salmon Alliance tries to find the reasons behind it by bringing together leading salmon organisations from across the UK.

While salmon might not grab the headlines like beavers or otters do, they are nevertheless an important flagship species for Scotland. A species that is in crisis. These iconic fish spend time in both rivers and at sea, as far away as the west coast of Greenland, amazingly returning to the same river where they were born. When they make their way back to their rivers to spawn, one of nature’s greatest events can be witnessed – the salmon run. In Scotland, the salmon run occurs throughout the year, while some rivers are famous for their seasonal runs. In spring, visitors can head to River Dee to witness the iconic run, for example, while River Tweed hosts it around summer and autumn.

As one of Scotland’s oldest indigenous species, the Atlantic salmon is a quintessential British fish and a key part of the country’s history, culture and identity. Many local economies are still dependent on their return each year to Scotland’s vast river network up and down the UK. Lindsay Wrapson who works with the Missing Salmon Alliance, a collective of UK conservation organisations (Atlantic Salmon Trust, Angling Trust, The Rivers Trust, Fisheries Management Scotland and the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust) seeking to explore the reasons behind the sharp decline of the species in Atlantic waters, says: “Salmon represent the global health of our rivers, oceans and ultimately our relationship with the natural world that sustains all human activity.”

By looking at the numbers and figures, the reality of wild Atlantic salmon populations quickly becomes evident. Stocks have plummeted by 80% in 25 years and researchers predict that wild salmon will become extinct in many areas of the world over the next 30 years if the current trend continues. According to the Missing Salmon Alliance, the “number of salmon returning to their spawning grounds has fallen dramatically since the 1970s and wild Atlantic salmon could be lost from many of our rivers within our lifetime if we do not act now”.

Wrapson adds: “Since the 1970’s, based on the abundance of adults returning to coastal waters, large salmon have declined by between 54 to 88% whilst smaller salmon (grilse) have declined between 40 to 66%.” While the species faces numerous pressures throughout their lives in freshwater as well as the marine environment, the Missing Salmon Alliance currently seeks to find out the reasons behind this sharp decline.

“By coming together as organisations with the shared goal of saving our wild salmon and collaborating with further organisations and initiatives, we stand a chance of making a real difference. The shared objective of the Missing Salmon Alliance and its partners is to reverse the decline in salmon numbers seen over the past 50 years. The reasons behind this decline are complex and are a combination of human induced impacts and the effects of rapid climate change,” says Wrapson.

Many reasons could be behind the sharp salmon decline. Some suspect that the salmon are eaten by a number of predators, while some argue the decline could be attributed to poor feeding due to temperature changes in the water that were fostered by climate change. “Owing to their complicated life history, the reasons behind the decline of this symbolic species are both numerous and diverse. Potential causes range from a changing environment in the face of climate change to increased predation and a reduction in prey,” adds Wrapson.

Rather than speculating, however, data needs to be collected to find out exactly who or what is to blame so that effective conservation measures can be put in place to manage the populations. That’s why the Missing Salmon Alliance that is made up of The Atlantic Salmon Trust, The Angling Trust, Fisheries Management Scotland, the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust and The Rivers Trust brought a number of research projects to life, including the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust’s River Frome Project, and the Atlantic Salmon Trust’s Moray Firth and West Coast Tracking Projects.

The Moray Firth Tracking Project, for example, is an ambitious project that seeks to recognise the migration pathways of the species. While studying the smolt migration around the Moray Firth in detail, the research team hopes to identify the causes of its mortality. This can provide vital answers as around 20% of all salmon that leave the UK take the route from the Moray Firth down to the ocean.

In 2019, researchers started the Moray Firth Tracking Project by gathering evidence across the Moray Firth and in the coastal zone to provide an understanding of the migration patterns of the young salmon smolts as they make their way out to sea. By using acoustic telemetry technology and tags, the project found that 50% of smolts went missing in action – an interesting find that now needs to be better understood and further analysed. The information gathered will help establish evidence-based management practices and will ultimately help protect the future of Scottish salmon. “The findings from the Moray Firth and West Coast Tracking Projects all feed into the Likely Suspects Framework. By providing evidence-based research, this information can help inform river managers and policymakers on how to better protect this iconic species and contribute to creating a future where our salmon can thrive,” explains Wrapson.

All collected data and findings from the various projects will be fed into The Likely Suspect Framework which aims to understand salmon survival and hopes to soon be able to provide advice and guidance to salmon managers and to allow them to consider the risks across the salmon life cycle and assess management approaches.

“We must protect our freshwater habitats, such as addressing barriers to migration and providing cooling shade from native trees, to ensure salmon are returning to safe environments. Improving water quantity and quality, such as stopping pollution from agricultural run-off and sewage, and tackling over-abstraction and better management of river flows, will also improve this habitat. We can also reduce losses of salmon in our rivers, coastal waters, and the open ocean, encouraging governments to address the impacts of aquaculture and by-catch,” concludes Wrapson.


For more information on the various research projects and work of the Missing Salmon Alliance, please visit:

Photographs by The Missing Salmon Alliance