SILVER TOURISTS – PAST AND PRESENT
In 2012 two Atlantic salmon, the first for over 50 years, managed to swim their way up the Rhine to Switzerland. The Upper Rhine is still blocked by French EDF dams and these fish had to sneak through the locks beneath the barges heading upstream to Basel.
“During the winter 2011/2012, spawning salmon were detected in several tributaries to the Upper Rhine. In May and June 2012, two salmon reached the High Rhine.” ICPR (International Commission for the Protection of the Rhine).
Many years of fishing and fish watching in Scotland, Ireland and Wales did not prepare me for how difficult my hunt for a Rhine salmon would be and I only want to see one I don’t want to catch one. After all to fish in Germany you must first pass an exam and although I know my fishy fellows I suspect my grasp of German will not yet enable a “fish pass”.
In this post last year I described meeting the Upper Rhine’s only salmon fly fisherman. I have met many other fishermen but most appear to have been fast asleep while their bait fished for pike, zander, carp or trout.
I have stopped and stared. I have leaned over bridges.
I have walked the banks. And I have sat and sat and watched at weirs. The tributaries here on the right bank have been made as straight as Fen ditches. On the left bank there is a little more hope, the tributaries the Ill, Thur and Fecht are fishy but I have yet to spot a silver tourist among the shoals of barbel, chub and other inedible foreign finny fellows.
I have even watched for salmon in this tiny Wohnung. The Wohnung, a typical flat or apartment is the German equivalent of a Highland black house but black houses were a little more roomy and bright and they had a real turf fire. I always enjoy the scent of turf smoke, immeasurably finer than the smell of any dope or tobacco. I have watched for salmon as I lay awake in bed in this smoke free apartment. The live webcam feed from the fish-pass downstream is far more interesting than TV. The fish-pass-webcam is presently out of action while a new turbine is fitted at the Iffenzheim dam and for now I have resorted to re-reading Moby Dick.
The Rhine was the most important salmon river in Europe. The estimate for the catch of salmon from the Rhine in 1880 was almost 250,000. The building of weirs and dams and the pollution of the Rhine were the main factors that eventually resulted in the extinction of the Rhine salmon in the 1950s. In 1950 the countries bordering the Rhine, Switzerland, France, Luxembourg, Germany and the Netherlands set up a forum for discussing and solving the problems related to the pollution and restoration of the Rhine. There were many years of talking and of setting up the required frameworks for taking action to repair the damage.
In 1986 a fire and chemical leak at the Sandoz warehouse near Basel poisoned the Rhine and everything in it. Within 10 days the pollution had travelled the length of the Rhine and into the North Sea. An estimated half a million fish were killed, and some species were wiped out entirely. The spill reversed 10 years of work to clean up the river.
There was a public outcry, resulting in the Rhine Action Programme of 1987, sometimes known as “Salmon 2000” because its stated target was to see the return of salmon to the Rhine by the year 2000. Salmon are particularly sensitive to water pollution, but some returned to the lower river in 1997, three years ahead of schedule.
“The number of animal and plant species has increased. At present, 63 fish species live in the Rhine. In particular, and since 2006, salmon, sea-trout and eel as well as other migratory fish may migrate from the North Sea as far upstream as Strasbourg.” ICPR
There has been real progress, there are fish ladders at hydroelectric stations in Iffezheim (Germany) and Gambsheim (France) just downstream of us here in Breisach. A new fish ladder is planned for 2015 at Strasbourg.
But there is still much to do. The few salmon that return, do so because of the efforts of those who stock the tributaries each year. Effective fish ladders in the Upper Rhine are still required at the hydroelectric generating dams.
These dams are all French and operated by the lovely French energy monopoly Electricité de France (EDF). They stop the returning salmon in their tracks and chop up many of the downstream migrating young salmon and eels in its turbines.
Not willing to spend the required tiny percentage of their annual revenue to secure safe passage of fish they suggested operating “fish taxis” to carry the fish around all the dams and up to Basel by road tanker.
“Salmon 2000” and its successful actions in favour of migratory fish is continuing in the 21st century with a part of the new ICPR working programme “Rhine 2020”.
In 2012 through to November 50 salmon passed through the counter at the dam at Gabsheim together with 19 other species – a total of 23,360 fish counted.
But every year hundreds of thousands of a different species of silver tourists migrate up the Rhine.
They arrive by long thin barges. The gang plank is lowered, the many zimmer frames are lined up and the silver tourists shuffle ashore for loading into coaches.
They will visit wine cellars, vineyards and Black Forest equivalents of The Green Welly Shop where they will look at hideous cuckoo clocks.
And while they are out for the day the tables are laid, quite likely, with a starter of fish farm smoked salmon, because unlike the migrating fish that do not eat on their return to freshwater, these tourists will not live off their fat for the journey but will eat and drink well on their sedentary migration, unaware that a submarine salmon may be sneaking though the lock upstream with their barge.