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Atlantic Salmon On Assignment

Atlantic Salmon On Assignment

Atlantic Salmon
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A Shrinking World
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By Fen MontaignePhotographs by Paul Nicklen

Farm-raised salmon now outnumber wild fish nearly 85 to one. As wild stocks dwindle, this legendary sport fish has become the veritable chicken of the sea.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

Standing on a grassy bank of the River Deveron, Lord Marnoch, an eminent Scottish judge, is attached—via a 12-foot (4-meter) fly rod, a bit of line, and a hook—to an Atlantic salmon. The creature struggling to dislodge Lord Marnoch's fly from its jaw was spawned in the Deveron, resided several years in the river, and has spent the past year fattening up in the North Atlantic, probably near the Faroe Islands or Iceland, before completing its long migration home to reproduce. It is a strong, wild, young salmon of about five pounds (two kilograms), known as a grilse, and it was doing fine until it entered the Deveron and succumbed to the allure of Lord Marnoch's delicate, orange fly.

Lord Marnoch is the very picture of the classic Atlantic salmon angler. A distinguished-looking man of 62 with a thick head of graying hair, he is dressed on this cool July day in moss green knickers, a beige cashmere sweater, and a brown tie. Over his knickers he is wearing pale green waders. He carries a wooden walking stick and wears a tweed, olive-colored deerstalker cap. He was born Michael Bruce, but upon being elevated to Scotland's High Court he was given the title of Lord Marnoch, an honor he wears with ease. He and several friends have come to the Deveron in northeastern Scotland to catch the king of game fish, a highly civilized pursuit that involves much angling but also pleasant hours eating pâté sandwiches and drinking single-malt whisky in a green hut by the Deveron. It is a picturesque river, about 25 yards (23 meters) wide in this stretch, and flows placidly through a hilly landscape that is a checkerboard of green wheat fields, slopes of golden barley, and tidy forests of larch, beech, and alder.

The fish is holding firm in the depths of a tea-colored pool, its resistance causing Lord Marnoch's rod to bend and his line to shudder. Shadowing the judge is his gillie, or fishing guide, Harvey Grant, a man who comes to the river dressed in a windowpane tweed suit and who, in his Scottish brogue, gently dispenses words of advice: "Walk it upstream, sir, just like you're walking a dog."

Soon, Lord Marnoch has reeled the silver creature into the bank, where Grant nets it.

"Not a bad wee grilse," says Lord Marnoch.

"Kill it, sir?" asks Grant.

"Absolutely," replies Lord Marnoch, whereupon the gillie grabs a rock and ends the salmon's migration with a firm tap to the head.

"I really think these beautiful creatures are far too fine to be played with and put back," says Lord Marnoch, a salmon conservationist who nonetheless believes in killing a few for the pot. "Catch-and-release fishing is rather like in the Roman arena going thumbs up or down. If a beautiful creature has succumbed to me, I think the right thing is to hit it on the head."

The scene is a timeless one, and the grilse caught by Lord Marnoch fits the image of an Atlantic salmon: Salmo salar, the "leaper" in Latin, a sleek, chrome-colored fish that fights its way up northern rivers, jumping rapids and waterfalls on its spawning run. The truth is, however, that wild Atlantic salmon have been in steep decline for decades, and today the North Atlantic is dominated by a new kind of salmon. It can be found not far from Lord Marnoch's fishing hole on the Deveron, packed into sea cages in the lochs of western Scotland. There, about 50 million farmed Atlantic salmon swim round and round in pens as they are fed pellets to speed their growth, pigments to mimic the pink hue of wild salmon flesh, and pesticides to kill the lice that go hand-in-hand with an industrial feedlot. It is these salmon that you purchase at the market for five dollars a pound, and today in Scotland—as in many North Atlantic countries—farmed salmon outnumber wild salmon by 300 or 400 to one.

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Sights & Sounds

Learn why the future of these leaping silver beauties is so uncertain.


Farmed salmon are displacing those in the wild. What responsibility do consumers have to protect wild salmon? Should we stop eating salmon altogether?

More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
Fisheries biologists can determine the age of a wild Atlantic salmon by "reading" its scales. Much like the growth rings on a tree, the concentric rings on the scales of a salmon can be counted—and each one tells a story.

When a young salmon first emerges from the egg, it has no scales. As the fish grows and rudimentary scales develop, rings form around the center, or core, of each scale at regular intervals. In the warmer months, when fish are feeding actively and growth is rapid, the rings are widely spaced. In the winter, when water is cold and food is scarce, the rings grow close together, sometimes giving the appearance under a microscope of a dark band. The two sets of rings indicate one year. An illustration of an Atlantic salmon scale can be viewed at

Other things that can be learned from scales include the number of years a salmon has spent at sea and how many times it has spawned. Scientists also use scales to differentiate between a wild Atlantic salmon and a captive raised one: The irregular growth rings of a wild salmon are very different from the regular growth rings of a hatchery fish. In addition, scales can be used as source material for DNA, providing a window into the genetic relationships between individual Atlantic salmon.

Fortunately, scales can be removed without any lasting damage to a salmon, which can then be returned to its watery realm.

—Kathy B. Maher

Did You Know?

Related Links
Atlantic Salmon Federation
This international organization promotes the conservation and wise management of the wild Atlantic salmon and its environment. Highlights of the Atlantic Salmon Federation website include information on the life cycle and biology of the Atlantic salmon, an atlas of North American salmon rivers, and news on issues affecting Atlantic salmon.

Atlantic Salmon Trust
Based in the United Kingdom, the Atlantic Salmon Trust works to conserve and improve wild salmon populations in countries bordering the North Atlantic Ocean. As a center of information on wild salmon and sea trout, the AST serves as a resource for government and scientific organizations in the U.K. and abroad.

North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization (NASCO)
Established 20 years ago by the Convention for the Conservation of Salmon in the North Atlantic Ocean, NASCO is an international force in the conservation, restoration, enhancement, and rational management  of salmon stocks. Visit this website to learn more about its work.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS)
Listed as endangered by the USFWS, wild Atlantic salmon in Maine rivers face threats that could drive them to extinction. Learn about recovery plans—and the life history of Atlantic salmon in general—at this site.

SeaWeb Aquaculture Clearinghouse
Aiming to raise public awareness of the health of the world's oceans, the SeaWeb Aquaculture Clearinghouse addresses environmental and social issues surrounding the growing fish-farming industry.

Monterey Bay Aquarium
The health of the oceans is in your hands! That's the message at the Monterey Bay Aquarium's "Seafood Watch," where you'll find a guide to choosing seafood that's good for you and for the oceans.


Baum, Ed. Maine Atlantic Salmon: A National Treasure. Atlantic Salmon Unlimited, 1997.

Buck, Richard. Silver Swimmer. Lyons and Burford, 1993.

Lee, Philip. Home Pool: The Fight to Save the Atlantic Salmon. Goose Lane Editions, 1998.

Parfit, Michael. "Lost at Sea: What's Killing the Great Atlantic Salmon?" Smithsonian (April 2002), 68-77.

Watson, Rupert. Salmon, Trout, and Charr of the World: A Fisherman's Natural History. Swan Hill Press, 1999.

WWF. The Status of Wild Atlantic Salmon: A River by River Assessment. AGMV Marquis, 2001. Available online at:


NGS Resources
Van Dyk, Jere. "Long Journey of the Pacific Salmon," National Geographic (July 1990), 2-37.

Dry, Dan. "Salmon Run, Michigan Style," National Geographic Traveler (Autumn 1984), 81-8.

Lee, Art. "Atlantic Salmon: The 'Leaper' Struggles to Survive," National Geographic (November 1981), 600-15.

Idyll, Clarence. "The Incredible Salmon," National Geographic (August 1968), 194-219.


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