Orri Vigfusson

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow since 2004
Ashoka commemorates and celebrates the life and work of this deceased Ashoka Fellow.
This description of Orri Vigfusson's work was prepared when Orri Vigfusson was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2004 .


Orri Vigfusson has successfully orchestrated an international effort to conserve and restore the wild Atlantic salmon.

The New Idea

In 1989, Orri Vigfusson realized that saving wild Atlantic salmon would require an international citizen-led program to make market forces work for, rather than against, conservation. Orri proposed that citizen groups throughout the North Atlantic approach their governments and the fishing industry with a plan that would rescue both the disappearing fish and the struggling fishermen who depend on them: buy out fishing rights, stabilize the salmon population, and establish salmon as a valuable resource whose protection would bring income to rural areas throughout Europe and North America.

At the time, Orri had been involved in local conservation on the Big Laxa River in northern Iceland. He realized that no matter how effective his local efforts were, they could not ensure the survival of salmon. Even when they are well protected in their rivers, the fish are often caught as they venture out to open sea. Orri knew that people throughout Europe, Scandinavia, and North America were also trying to restore and protect wild salmon, yet nothing seemed to work. It was an important moment. The salmon industry was changing. The Atlantic catch had been on the wane for decades. Large fish farms were stepping in to maintain the supply. The remaining small and medium fishermen were squeezed between a dwindling resource and stiff competition from their larger competitors.

Orri founded the North Atlantic Salmon Fund (NASF) to manage an international program of action that starts with the commercial buyouts of drift nets, draft nets, and almost all coastal fishing operations throughout the North Atlantic. The fund creates a common agenda among river conservators, anglers’ associations, landowners along rivers, and scientists. Together with NASF they raise private money and lobby governments for political support and financial investment for Salmon conservation. The fund has organized partners in 15 countries, supporting the financial, legal, and political aspects of the buyouts. Orri has helped broker salmon buyouts in all but two key countries: Ireland and Norway.

Protecting salmon in the open ocean takes the pressure off the species, but it is just the first step in Orri’s vision. The next move will be to develop local economic incentives to make salmon a lucrative natural resource through activities such as catch-and-release sport fishing, related tourism, and branding of local salmon products. For Orri, salmon conservation is a driving force for improvement of the economic health and security of rural communities.

The Problem

The wild Atlantic salmon population has diminished by as much as 90 percent since the beginning of the twentieth century. The World Wildlife Fund reports that salmon have disappeared from Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia and are just barely hanging on in Canada and the state of Maine. The primary cause of this decline is the growth of the fishing industry—more boats catching more fish with more devastating efficiency. There are inland causes as well: river pollution, dams, and mills that block upstream migration. Salmon are by nature international, born in the rivers of individual countries but maturing offshore, migrating along foreign coastlines and traveling through international waters. Every salmon caught in the open ocean makes for one less salmon in a local river, diminishing the population available to a rural community in Europe, the United States, or elsewhere.

But why care about the loss of a wild fish, especially when large salmon farms keep grocery stores stocked with affordable salmon meat? The first reason is that catching and selling wild salmon have been important economic activities throughout the northern Atlantic for centuries, once contributing to the livelihoods of tens of thousands of people. Declining fish populations are an economic problem as much as an ecological one. The long-term question is how to make fishing viable so that coastal fisherman can profit from salmon without decimating them.

Protecting wild salmon also matters because reliance on farmed salmon creates significant environmental and economic problems. Farms often pack their fish into large offshore pens, polluting coastal waters with their waste. Feeding penned salmon is inefficient and probably unsustainable; it takes three pounds of other wild fish species to grow a farmed salmon’s weight by one pound. Among hundreds of thousands of fish locked up in close quarters, diseases and parasites proliferate and then spread to other areas and species. When fish escape their pens, they mix with wild populations. Lacking natal rivers of their own, they join the migration and interbreed, thus diluting and weakening each river’s unique genetic pool. If wild salmon were to disappear altogether, farmed salmon, despite their immense numbers, would lack the ability to replace them in dozens of local rivers. As long as there are wild fish, the opportunity remains for consumers to benefit from a more healthful, more diverse, more local source of salmon.

The first conservationists began ringing the alarm over wild Atlantic salmon in the early 1970s. A decade later, fishermen discovered the major feeding ground off the coast of Greenland. The annual catch of Atlantic salmon, which had been declining steadily for 30 years, spiked—the fishing industry had found the salmon’s last sanctuary. As they exploited it, people in Maine, Nova Scotia, Canada, Iceland, Greenland, Scotland, England, Sweden, and Norway observed an immediate drop in their local salmon populations. The success of commercial fishermen ran counter to the industry’s denials that over-fishing was the major culprit in causing salmon stocks to dwindle.

But evidence alone did not evoke multilateral commitments to conservation. In economic terms, it was an “open-access” problem, where no clear property rights exist for a shared, finite resource. Without an international system to apportion rights, each country was governing only its own annual catch, sometimes using scientific data to raise or lower the total quota. But even improved national quotas would have missed the point; the migratory nature of salmon meant that a river’s population could be wiped out in one season at sea. Curtailing the catch in one country would have little effect on salmon preservation. Countries that had banned the salmon harvest were seeing no improvement in their river stocks, while those that kept fishing reaped the benefits.

The Strategy

The principles that guide the work of the North Atlantic Salmon Fund are a mixture of conviction and concrete action. Orri applies these principles to preserve wild salmon in a two-stage strategy. First, he works to protect existing populations and allow them to regenerate without further fishing. As this is accomplished, the second stage begins: rebuilding the wild-salmon economy by linking the fish’s survival to sustainable rural enterprises.

After 15 years, the first stage is showing wonderful results. Orri has built the NASF into an international coalition that leverages millions of dollars for environmental protection. At its heart are citizen organizations throughout the Atlantic, associations of people who live and work along formerly salmon-rich rivers. These ordinary citizens want to preserve local species diversity, maintain rural tradition, and generate enterprise in economically depressed areas. By becoming their partner, mentor, and motivator, Orri has helped strengthen these groups and align them to the fund’s agenda.

His campaigns reach out to organizations of commercial fishermen as well. As Orri approaches these groups, he knows they have something in common: he comes from a family of herring fishermen. He has deep respect for the salmon, encyclopedic knowledge of it, and—most important—a message that appeals to anglers: they can help to sustain and not contribute to the extinction of the species. Speaking to angling clubs, Orri invites fishermen to donate, to adopt and sponsor an individual fish in a protected river, or take a fishing vacation that puts money directly into an Icelandic or Scottish community. Orri also organizes the hobbyists. Throughout the world there are many wealthy and well-placed people for whom fishing is a leisure activity. From the start, Orri saw an opportunity to enroll them in the fund’s activities, as contributors but also as volunteers, lobbyists, and allies. Fly-fishing lawyers help the fund map out its legal strategy, while prominent American diplomats have opened doors in the United States and Europe. When environmental purists question his work with fishermen, Orri keeps to his ecological and social goals: Salmon are an important resource, and the more people who want to protect it, the better.

As the fund began raising money, it set its sights on key opportunities that would provide both immediate relief to wild salmon populations and demonstrate possibilities for future conservation. Throughout the 1990s, Orri managed to retire almost all the salmon nets in the Atlantic through strategic buyouts and political reforms. A 1993 two-year quota purchase slowed fishing in international waters in the northwest Atlantic. In 1991 and again in 1995, he won two moratoria agreements off the Faeroe Islands, where Norwegian salmon feed. In 1996, the NASF bought the remaining netting rights within two hundred miles of Iceland’s coast, and in 2000, it partnered with the UK government to buy the remaining nets in the North Sea. In 2003, NASF began negotiating its biggest deal yet, an US$8-million buyout of Irish driftnets. Such deals include investments in the local inshore fishing industries and the promotion of alternative fishing opportunities, such as lumpfish or snow crabs, for which there is now a lucrative market. Therefore the buyouts are not just payoffs. Orri tries to help the fishermen convert to a more sustainable activity.

The success of his conservation efforts, now visible in growing salmon stocks throughout north Atlantic rivers, has paved the way for the second stage of Orri’s mission. He is now leveraging the strong and successful citizen base he built over the past 15 years to create new economic incentives for ongoing conservation. Again, Orri offers a simple economic message: A live salmon is worth more than a dead one. While commercial fishing is only marginally profitable, catch-and-release sport fishing can drive economic booms. A fish destined for market might fetch the netsman US$25, but the same fish maintained and protected in its home river can earn hundreds of dollars in value for the local economy. Visiting fishermen have to hire guides, purchase temporary permits, put up at lodges or hotels, buy provisions, and rent equipment. Ultimately they often return their catch to the river—which means more spawners and sometimes an opportunity for another visitor to repeat the investment by catching and returning the same fish. Better yet, a market already exists: Enthusiastic anglers book fishing vacations to Iceland as far as three years in advance. 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 presently generates. It may take another fifteen or twenty years, but Orri believes that men and salmon can create a sustainable, cooperative relationship that builds the health of both species.

The Person

Orri’s parents came from poor families in northern Iceland, but their fortunes changed when their region became a center for catching, processing, and exporting herring. First as a fisherman, then as a herring processor, and later as a businessman with more diverse interests, Orri’s father found success and relative wealth in the herring boom. Young Orri began working in the family business from age ten, and would take to the ocean as often as he could. But the boom was short-lived and according to Orri, “We overfished. And while the people made a lot of money from herring, ultimately we had to stop.”

Before settling on salmon protection, Orri went through a wide range of business experiences, testing and honing his entrepreneurial spirit. He studied international business in London, and when he returned to Iceland he set up the country’s first Toyota importing business, gaining practical experience in international trade. His next role was with the Federation of Icelandic Manufacturers, looking for products and markets that would support cottage industries throughout the country. Perceiving a market for high-quality woolen goods, Orri spent several years helping communities establish small industries producing sweaters and the like to feed strong demand in the United States and Europe.

In 1966, Orri had his first experience with the Atlantic Salmon. His wife, who was also from a small town in northern Iceland, brought Orri to fish along the Laxa River, famous for its salmon runs. In his first fishing trips, Orri was hooked. He kept on angling, and in 1984 was elected chairman of the Laxa Fishing Club. From this position, the declining numbers of wild salmon returning to the river was obvious. In 1989, to celebrate the club’s 50th anniversary, Orri launched a campaign to end mixed-stock fishing off the Icelandic coast. The idea was to buy into Iceland’s system of tradable fishing quotas for conservation purposes. Believing that the fish could now feed in the sea unmolested, the club released fish tagged with their river of origin, but none returned. The tags, however, were coming back—from fish processing plants in Greenland and the Faeroe Islands. Realizing that salmon conservation could not succeed from within any single country, Orri founded the North Atlantic Salmon Fund, which is already working to apply the same basic approach on a multinational scale.