Salmon on the Rhine: See any connections?

Swiss officials are delighted by a 36-inch Atlantic salmon that apparently migrated 600 miles up the Rhine River, well into the landlocked country of Switzerland, where the fish was caught by an amateur angler.

It was the first salmon seen that far up the Rhine in half a century, according to the English version of Spiegel International.

“In the 19th century, salmon were so plentiful in the Rhine that they were used to feed the poor,” the story states. “In the 1930s, salmon were still relatively plentiful in Basel, with around 120 of them caught each year. But neither tail nor scale of the animal has been seen since 1958.”

This incident reminds me of the ongoing, and somewhat desperate, effort in the Northwest to return sockeye salmon to Redfish Lake in Idaho. But that’s a Kitsap story for another day. (For a quick review without the Kitsap angle, there’s an update in The Idaho Statesman.)

As for the Rhine, a series of dams blocked the migration until fish ladders were installed. In 1986, a chemical spill had disastrous consequences for sea life in the river. Then in 1988, a project called Salmon 2000 set out to improve the river and bring salmon back to Switzerland.

On Sunday, 39-year-old Thomas Wanner was surprised at the fish he caught while dangling his line in the Birs River near Basel, not far from where its waters flows into the Rhine.

“It’s crazy, I can still hardly believe it,” Wanner told the local Basler Zeitung (newspaper).

As luck would have it, Olivier Schmidt, a hobby fisher who is a curator at Basel’s Natural History Museum, was nearby. Schmidt took a photo with his cell phone and sent the picture to Switzerland’s Environment Ministry to confirm the identify of the salmon.

Check out the map of the salmon’s apparent migration route and the obstacles it faced to reach Basel.

In December, Jochen Bolsche of Spiegel International reported on the difficulties faced by the group Salmon 2020 in getting salmon up the Rhine, particularly relating to troubles with dams in France. His story includes this note:

Switzerland, Europe’s environmental poster child, spends millions so that fish can pass through its own sections of the river and in addition pays for 5 percent of the stocked salmon in the entire 1,320 kilometer long Rhine watershed. Yet the Bern-based Federal Office for the Environment complains that Switzerland is, “along with Luxembourg, the only country that has not yet been able to celebrate the successful return of the salmon.”

If you are as fascinated as I am by the struggles to restore salmon in another country, check out this 2004 report called “Rhine Salmon 2020” (PDF 1 mb), which outlines the next phase of recovery.

(Interestingly, Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire has listed 2020 as the date to restore a “healthy Puget Sound.”)

The Salmon 2020 report declares the following “visions,” including the second one that we can hope is getting closer to reality:

1st vision: Several thousands of salmon in the Rhine
2nd vision: Undisrupted salmon migration as far as Basel
3rd vision: Salmon stocking is self-sustaining
4th vision: Wild salmon in the Rhine in 2020

One last item is the press release from the International Commission for the Protection of the Rhine.

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