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Protecting Atlantic Salmon

10 January 2024

At COP28 the decision was taken by the International Union for Conservation of Nature to reassess the status of Atlantic salmon, moving it from a species of “least concern” to “near threatened”. The species has to contend with a number of different pressures, some of which can be mitigated by the agricultural community. 

State of salmon 

Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) are born from spawn in our freshwaters where they live as juveniles before migrating to the seas as adults, then returning to the river where they were born to spawn young of their own. Within Scotland, the number of Atlantic salmon returning to Scotland has been on the decline since the early 1970s and the number of spawning salmon has been on the decline since at least 2010. Much of this decline has been historically attributed to the practices and activities of fisheries, although management of the farmed water environment has also impacted the species.  

The Atlantic salmon is an iconic species in Scotland and hugely important to the national food and tourism industries, with the value of wild fisheries to the Scottish economy estimated to be in the tens of millions of pounds. As well as this they are a vital member of many important food webs, supporting many iconic species such as otters, heron and kingfisher.   

 For the most part, the species is subject to a number of protections, including the UN Convention for the Conservation of Salmon in the North Atlantic Ocean. Closer to home they are part of the Habitats Directive, which grants the species special protected status within the boundaries of Scotland’s Special Areas of Conservation, one of our three main designations for protected nature sites. The species also features on the Scottish Biodiversity List, a list of animals, plants and broader habitats that Scottish Government consider particularly important in our national nature network.  

Salmon Swimming upstream

Challenging times ahead for this iconic Scottish species. (Image credit: Kuzmalo on 


Role of the agricultural community 

Among the 14 pressures facing Atlantic salmon listed in the Scottish Wild Salmon Strategy, farming could arguably have a role in tackling issues around water quality, quantity, temperature and the quality of riparian habitats.  

Fundamentally, salmon require clean, well-oxygenated water to survive, thrive and spawn in, so efforts to minimise diffuse pollution are a must in key salmon spawning locations. As climate change takes effect and drought conditions become increasingly common, some areas become less suitable to the species, and spawning habitats fragment along with populations. Meanwhile flood conditions, where water runs too quickly, can also disrupt substrate the species relies on and in extreme cases displace fish from their preferred habitat. Salmon are accustomed to cold water environments and are highly vulnerable to increases in water temperatures. Average water temperatures can change due to a range of factors, including pollutants and loss of shade from the Sun, an increasing issue for Scotland’s more open, exposed watercourses. The loss of traditional riparian habitats also means less plant and insect activity around the water environment, having wider impacts on the interactions between species and the catchment as a whole.  

The water environment is an important part of Scotland’s landscape and much of it falls into the farmed environment. We have a range of materials relating specifically to water management on the farm and the options available for those looking to take positive actions. Working closely with our partners at Farming and Water Scotland, materials available cover issues like riverbank restoration, ditch and drain management and riparian planting options. 

 Related Resources  

Salmon Swimming upstream

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