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Pollution threat to salmon

Salmon travelling thousands of miles across continents are ‘falling at the last hurdle’ due to polluted UK rivers
Atlantic salmon jumping out of the water

As salmon begin their long and arduous journey from the North Atlantic to the rivers of the UK, they face numerous challenges along the way – but one of the most pressing threats to their survival is pollution in UK waters.

WWF is using this spotlight on salmon to call on governments in the UK to urgently improve river health – in England only 14% are at Good Ecological Status (GES).

River health is not only vital for the survival of many freshwater species, but also for the countless people who use rivers for recreation. 

Obstacles for salmon

The journey that a salmon makes can be thousands of miles long, taking them from the icy waters of the North Atlantic to the rivers of the UK.

Along the way, they encounter predators, fishing nets and numerous other obstacles.

When they finally arrive in UK waters, the salmon often find that the rivers they need to navigate are polluted with chemicals, sewage and pesticides.

Legal complaint launched

Rising sea and river temperatures, and pollution caused by agrochemical run-off, soil and manure from nearby farms, have also caused changes in the freshwater environment which make it harder for salmon to reproduce.  

WWF and ClientEarth have launched a legal complaint to the Office for Environmental Protection against the Environment Agency for its failure to monitor and enforce key environmental laws critical to addressing nitrogen pollution from farms across England.

‘Salmon are the most incredibly resilient species – they can clear obstacles of more than 3m – higher than the current High Jump World Record, and swim for thousands of miles. But they can’t survive the horrific conditions that face them once they reach UK waters.
‘UK nature is in crisis and we should be doing everything in our power to make sure our rivers are in good health. It’s time for urgent action from farmers and food businesses, water companies and regulators. The most urgent priority is for UK governments to ensure that regulatory agencies have the resources and political backing to hold polluters to account, and to provide more funding for river restoration.’

WWF’s chief freshwater advisor

Salmon in UK rivers

Changes in river health could lead to the disappearance of salmon completely from many Welsh rivers within the next few decades, a recent report by Natural Resources Wales has warned, despite two of the country’s primary rivers, the Usk and the Wye being among the best salmon rivers in the UK.

In England the situation is no better, with a 2022 Environment Agency report categorising 88% of the country’s salmon rivers ‘at risk’.

However, both reports also flag that stocks can recover with the right intervention.  

The People’s Plan for Nature

This sense of hope and the urgent need to protect nature is also reflected across society and earlier this month, the People’s Plan for Nature – the first ever UK-wide citizens’ assembly for nature – published its recommendations for renewing and protecting our natural environment.

Specific calls to improve river health included the urgent restoration of all rivers and wetlands and investment in wastewater infrastructure. 

It comes after three of the UK’s leading conservation charities, WWF, RSPB and the National Trust, launched a campaign calling on everyone in society to come together to halt the destruction of UK nature and take urgent action to Save Our Wild Isles. 

It’s not too late

Millions of people from all walks of life discovered the wonder but also the fragility of UK nature through the first episode of the new Wild Isles series, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, which aired on 12 March.  

The following day three of the UK’s largest conservation charities, with 324 years of combined experience and 8.5 million combined members, used their collective voice to call on all sectors of society across the UK to act. 

The charities have said there is just enough of the UK’s natural world still left to save, and if everyone – the public, communities, businesses and our leaders – all urgently work together to aid its recovery, nature can begin to thrive again within the next few decades.

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