The first time ORRI VIGFUSSON went fishing for salmon, on his 24th birthday in 1966, he was thrilled to land a 10lb fish. Yet over the next couple of decades he gradually noticed dramatic changes in stocks…
“Every year, in the late 1970s and 80s we saw fewer and fewer salmon coming back from the ocean,” he said. “I knew from many anglers in other countries that the same thing was happening.” The problem has begun, he said, in the 1950s when the fishing industry noticed that salmon from rivers in North America and Europe gathered in the sea around Greenland and the Faroe Islands. A massive operation was established, with thousands of miles of driftnets placed across the routes taken by the fish and the near destruction of the species.
Vigfússon realised that this was not sustainable and in 1989 set up the North Atlantic Salmon Fund with the aim of preserving and restoring stocks. Using the wealth he had acquired from his business interests- including selling Icelandic vodka to the Russians- he brought up the fishing rights from trawler owners and others whose livelihoods had led to the depletion of the fish. The fund raised additional cash to support his work and over nearly thirty years it has been able to buy and retire an estimated 85 per cent of commercial salmon quotas in the North Atlantic basin.
Charming but single-minded to a fault, he rarely if ever sat still, rising early, nipping to Helsinki or New York in between browbeating a government minister or courting a celebrity fro support or funds. He believed that commercial conservation agreements were better than intergovernmental treaties. “Why? Because if you don’t follow the agreement you don’t get paid,” he said. “Money talks.”
“He believed that commercial conservation agreements were better than intergovernmental treaties. ‘Why? Because if you don’t follow the agreement you don’t get paid. Money talks.'”
Vigfússon, who described himself as a “green capitalist” while others called him “the Atlantic salmon’s greatest friend”, believed that fishing professionals had the right to earn a living. Hence the fund’s guiding principle that every nets man and woman who volunteered to stop salmon fishing must receive fair compensation and help in finding alternation employment.
His first big catch was in 1990 when he signed a £15 million deal with fishermen int the Faroe Isles that was backed by a consortium including the Icelandic and Norwegian governments as well as angling interests in Scotland, Ireland, Denmark and Germany. It was followed by deals in Greenland and Britain. “I’m a new kind of environmentalist,” he said. “I don’t take the moral high-road. I sit down with people and say ‘let’s make a deal.’ I simply want to make a deal that’s good for them, good for us, and then good for the salmon. We all come out as winners.”
“I’m a new kind of environmentalist,” he said. “I don’t take the moral high-road.”
Orri Vifússon was born into a herring fishing family in Siglufjörður, a small town on the north coast of Iceland. “I was born on 10th July 1942, the day the biggest salmon ever caught on fly in Iceland, a thirty six pounder, was landed,” he said. His father became a herring processor, finding success and wealth in the boom of the 1950s.
Young Orri began working in the family business from the age of ten and would take to the seas as often as he could, but the boom proved to be short-lived. “My family played a part in the over-fishing of the herring stocks in the 1960s, so we had to stop fishing for many years,” he said.
He was educated locally before moving to London in 1959, completing a degree in business studies at the London School of Economics. Returning to Iceland, he set up the country’s first Toyota importing business, gaining practical experience in international trade.
He next worked with the Federation of Icelandic Manufacturers, looking for products and markets that would support cottage industries throughout the country, producing sweaters and the like to feed strong demand from the hippie generation in the USA and Europe. He then moved into vodka manufacturing with Icy, which became a huge success in Russia.
He married Unnur Kristinsóttir, who worked for Icleandair and introduced him to his favourite fishing spot on the River Laxa. She survives him with their son, Vigfus, who runs a company organising fishing tours and a daughter, Hilda, who works at the University of Reykjavik.
Vigfússon received several international awards and accolades for his work, including the Goldman Environmental Prize, the biggest award for grassroots environmental work, in 2007. Even then the job was far from done. “Our ultimate goal is to return salmon stocks to the historical abundance enjoyed fifty years ago,” he said.
“Our ultimate goal is to return salmon stocks to the historical abundance enjoyed fifty years ago,” he said on recieving the Goldman Environmental Prize
Typically, Vigfússon made little fuss about the lung cancer that would kill him, but he still hankered after the last cigarette. He gave up thirty five years ago, but said his recollection of the aroma and the satisfaction of smoking remained strong. The most difficult thing he did was quit.
He had many interests beyond fishing: he was a director of the Bank of Iceland, sold geothermal technology to the Chinese and was the chairman of Iceland Opera, but in the end the salmon fund occupied most of his time.
And he remained a keen fisherman, often taking his rod and line to Norway, Scotland and Russia, as well as his favourite beat in Iceland, the “Big Laxa”- although, as he said, it was “catch and release, of course.”
ORRI VIGFUSSON, entrepreneur and environmentalist, died of lung cancer on 1st July 2017, aged 74.
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This article has also been published in The Times.