The Salmon in dire straits

The Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar), this extraordinary migratory species, prepared to swim thousands of kilometres between Greenland and Europe’s rivers, has virtually disappeared from what was once its natural habitat.

90% of wild salmon populations considered to be “in good health” are concentrated in just four countries: Scotland, Ireland, Iceland and Norway. From a global perspective, apart from these pockets, the status of this species is considered as critical (WWF, 2001).

In Europe’s large river basins, where thousands of salmon congregate every year, only a few hundred individuals remain. Global stocks of Atlantic salmon have decreased by 75% over the last 20 years, disappearing entirely from 15% of European and North American waterways where they originally occurred.

The Rhine was once the largest salmon-bearing river in Europe. A hundred years ago, a million salmon were migrating between Greenland, the Rhine and its tributaries all the way up as far as the Swiss Alps. But the original strain of these Rhine fish has suffered great loss over the years.


Salmon life cycle © Jörg Lange

Salmon hatches in freshwater, then travels downstream into the Atlantic, then swimming to the waters off Greenland, only to return to their birthplace in upper-river reaches to spawn.


Salmon fishermen in the Rhine, 1920’s

C Michel Roggo

© Michel Roggo

Conservation and restoration efforts

By the 1950s, salmon had gradually disappeared from the Rhine river basin. In the past 20 years, considerable effort by the International Commission for the Protection of the Rhine (ICPR) has improved water quality, the ecological continuity of the river and partly restored the biodiversity of the Rhine basin. A number of major modifications have been made to Rhine tributaries to make dams more surmountable for fish, in particular by the construction of fish passes and ladders. A reintroduction plan for salmon, initiated by the ICPR in 1991 as part of an international program, has been very successful. Other migrating fish (sea trout, sea and river lamprey as well as shads) were also reintroduced, and now fish migrations have begun to become established.  Fish are once again able to swim upstream from Rotterdam to the Iffezheim dam 30 kilometres from Karlsruhe, as well as into some of the lower tributaries of the Rhine, in particular the Sieg.


Ecological continuity and presence of the Rhine salmon © ERN France


Rhine River Basin

Some Initiatives to date:


In recent decades several projects have been initiated, with the aim of limiting fishing, e.g.:

  • The closure of the professional Norwegian fishery in 1984.
  • A substantial fall in the number of fish (predominantly American) taken in Greenland, decreasing from 2200 t to 8t in 2014).
  • A substantial fall in the Faroe Islands quota, decreasing from 2200 tonnes to 0, thanks to the voluntary buyback of fishing rights.
  • The buyback of fishing rights in the south of England is being discussed.


Atlantic salmon sea migration © Jörg Lange

Fishing boat © Jens Christian Holst


After 20 years of discussion, some of the gigantic flood control gates at Haringvliet in the Rhine delta of the Netherlands, will be opened – at least periodically, beginning in 2018. This measure represents a total investment of €70 million. It opens up the route for the salmon, and may also facilitate the comeback of a viable population of sturgeons (also a migratory fish which disappeared 60 years ago) as well as of oyster banks and supports the development of a sustainable fishery business.

This project will allow migration through the Ijsselmeer in the north of the delta where migration dropped in 1932 when the Afshintdijk dam was built.

To facilitate migration, a 4 kilometre artificial river will be built. Together with the tidal influence this will ensure a connection all year long. The investment totals €50 million.


Anti-flooding dam of Haringvliet © WWF NL

Passage to the Ijsselmeer (situation at low tide) © WWF NL


Ahmatten_dam_cc_Gerhard Bartl

Before / After Ahmatten dam (Kinzig) © Gerhard Bartl

Up as far as Iffezheim near to Karlsruhe the Rhine has been freed and the salmon have already taken advantage of this change with populations now found in several tributaries.

Natural spawning now occurs in the Sieg, the Lahn and the lower part of the Ill, in Alsace. In the Mosel, a lot of dams have been removed to allow fish migration and natural recolonization.

Since the installation of fish passes on the French-German hydroelectric power plants in Iffezheim and Gambsheim, salmons can once again take back the Kinzig, a river once teaming with fish.

The Kinzig, situated in Baden-Wurtemberg, was liberated in an exemplary way. The majority   of its course with its all-important spawning areas is now again accessible. The presence of a successful salmon farm supports regular recolonization.


Work at EDF’s Strasbourg hydroelectric power plant will be completed by early 2016 at a cost of approximately €16 million. At Gerstheim work started towards the end of 2015 and will take 3 years.

But there are still three hydropower plants remaining on this part of the Rhine. Plans for updating these facilities with fish passes are still unclear.

The Rhinau, Marckolsheim and Vogelgrün power plants should be equipped with up and down fish passes as a matter of priority so that migratory fish can reach the “Old Rhine” – the course of the former Rhine. The “Old Rhine” offers many excellent spawning grounds and is uninterrupted all the way to Basel. But it is suspected that just a small number of the migratory fish will adopt this route because they will most probably get attracted by a side channel of the Rhine, the much stronger current of the “grand canal d’Alsace”.

Along this canal there are the Fessenheim, Ottmarsheim and Kembs hydroelectric plants, these also need to be modified as soon as possible.


Fish pass of the power plant in Strasbourg © EDF



 Bypass waterway at the French-German hydro power plant of Rheinfelden © Roberto Epple

A lot of money has already been invested to enable salmon to reach its reproduction habitats.

In Basel and in the petite Camarque in the Alsace, eggs and juvenile salmon are set released on an annual basis.

The Dreisam and the Elz, the entire Old Rhine, the Wiese, the Swiss Birs and the Aare are all waiting for the arrival of the salmon.

If the salmon reach Basel by 2020, the spawning areas in the Upper Rhine and its tributaries would all be available for reproduction, which would mean a doubling of the spawning and juvenile habitats in one go!

The battle for the salmon is not over


Barriers on the Rhine between Karlsruhe and Basel
source :

Major conservation campaigns in both river and marine environments must continue to safeguard this precious natural heritage which also sustains the livelihoods of local people.

Ever since fishways were added to the Iffezheim and Gambsheim hydroelectric dams, salmon have been able to swim upstream again all the way to Strasbourg, but their journey ends there, as four more French dams (Gerstheim, Rhinau, Marckolsheim and Vogelgrün) block their migratory path. The fish are unable to reach the best spawning grounds located further upstream, near Basel in Switzerland. If these dams became passable, salmon could once again populate both new Black Forest tributaries and their original spawning beds in Switzerland, as many of the dams in the Black Forest and in Switzerland have already been equipped with fishways (see above “actions completed in the Upper Rhine, Black forest and Switzerland”).

These dams are very large and cannot be removed because of their importance in terms of hydroelectric energy production. But there are any number of possible technical solutions to re-establish ecological connectivity:

  • Installation of fish passes and ladders
  • Increase of instream flows
  • Construction of nature-like bypass channels
  • Re-establishment of connectivity with the Old Rhine

Even though these four hydroelectric dams are located on the French-German border, the terms of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles assigned responsibility for the dams exclusively to France. They are managed by Electricité de France (EDF), the long-term concession holder, which hasn’t so far made the necessary modifications to ensure the free passage of fish. Even though the requirements, established by the 2000 European water framework directive on healthy ecological conditions for European Rivers for 2015 and by the 2006 French law on water and aquatic environments (LEMA) regarding ecological continuity, are unambiguous.

Significantly, the International Commission for the Protection of the Rhine (ICPR) developed a ‘Master Plan for the Rhine’s migrating fish’ following the 2007 Ministerial Conference in Bonn. It established the objective of re-introducing a natural stock of salmon to the Rhine basin, in order to re-establish ecological continuity in the Rhine and its tributaries. The ICPR has thus officially requested that France ensures the free movement of migrating fish by providing upstream passages for the five dams that have not yet been modified.

Through this campaign began in 2013, we are therefore asking the French government and EDF to comply with the commitments made in 2007 and 2013 at the Ministerial Conference on the Rhine held in Bonn and in Basel and to create the necessary conditions for salmon to return to their best spawning grounds near Basel by 2020.

Since 2013, France has only just begun to make the necessary investments, despite German and Swiss pressure on the French government and EDF to make the required changes to this part of the Rhine –the missing link needed to restore ecological continuity in the Upper Rhine.



Vogelgrün © Michel Roggo


The “Salmon Come Back” campaign is launched by WWF Switzerland and coordinated internationally by ERN (European Rivers Network)

The “Salmon Come Back” campaign is launched by WWF Switzerland and coordinated internationally by ERN (European Rivers Network)
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