Conservationist, entrepreneur and founder of North Atlantic Salmon Fund

Obituary: Orri Vigfusson – Born: July 10th , 1942, Died: July 1st , 2017

Orri Vigfusson: Founder of North Atlantic Salmon Fund

Orri Vigfusson: Founder of North Atlantic Salmon Fund


If the wild Atlantic salmon continues to survive in Irish rivers, anglers everywhere will thank Orri Vigfusson, who died last weekend only nine days short of his 75th birthday.

Despite his involvement in conservation on a local river in northern Iceland, he realised that no matter how effective that might be, it could not save the salmon which were being hoovered up on the open sea.

The Icelandic entrepreneur, who made his fortune distilling vodka, decided to tackle the problem by orchestrating an international effort to conserve and restore the threatened salmon. Blessed with common sense, Vigfusson believed that saving that remarkable species would require of an international citizen-led campaign if rapidly dwindling stocks were to be conserved.

So, he set up the North Atlantic Salmon Fund with a view to raising enough money to buy out both salmon fishermen in the north Atlantic countries, including Ireland, where drift net fishermen using invisible monofilament nets were operating at sea while fixed draft netsmen patrolled the estuaries.

In Irish rivers, for instance, he learned that salmon were in danger of disappearing altogether because mature fish returning to breed in the very streams where they were spawned, were almost fished out. At the time, stories were rife about unscrupulous Irish fishermen using several miles of monofilament and on a rough night catching hundreds of salmon in a single haul. He also went public opposing some fish farm developments here , arguing that they would endanger wild salmon.

Market forces

His philosophy was to allow market forces to work for, rather than against, conservation. With records showing that the wild Atlantic salmon population had diminished by as much as 90 per cent since the beginning of the 20th century, the World Wildlife Fund reported that salmon had disappeared from Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

His plan was that citizen groups throughout the north Atlantic would approach both governments and the fishing industry with a buyout scheme calculated to rescue the disappearing fish and the struggling fishermen who depend on them for their livelihood. By buying out the fishing rights, the salmon population would be stabilised as a valuable resource bringing income to rural areas of Europe and North America.

At a series of meetings and conferences up and down the country, he reminded the Irish government that because of what was happening at sea, millions of euro risked being lost as angling tourism declined. Other countries blamed indiscriminate drift netting off the Irish coast for the collapse of their own salmon stocks, and welcomed Ireland’s total ban on drift net fishing in 2006.

Dwindling salmon

While salmon stocks improved, his death has highlighted fresh concerns about the future of the species. Whether due to global warming, fishing at sea or lice infestation by salmon farms, mystery surrounds the dwindling returns to Irish rivers at a time when the fund’s partners in Ireland estimate that the eventual income from sport salmon fishing would reach £80 million per year, compared to the £2 million that commercial netting currently generates.

Having fought tirelessly for 27 years for the survival and restoration of the wild Atlantic salmon, it was not, surprising that tributes poured in from anglers and environmentalists all over the world in recognition of what he had achieved by setting up the North Atlantic Salmon Fund. One such tribute describes him as “the greatest friend wild Atlantic salmon could ever have. Every time we in the future see a leaping salmon, we will bow our heads in memory and respect of the great man, friend and bridgebuilder, Orri Vigfusson.”

He is survived by his wife Unnur Kristinsdóttir, two children and three granddaughters.