#443 Return of the Elbe River salmon

Elbe River, Sächsische Schweiz, Germany, 2010

Elbe River, Sächsische Schweiz, Germany, 2010 – photo by Thomas Quine, via Flickr Creative Commons

Before industrialization, Atlantic salmon swam freely in the rivers of Europe. But industry remade more than the economy. Salmon returning from the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean to complete their life cycles found straightened waterways, dams and weirs, and hydropower plants.

Had they been able to navigate around all the obstructions, they would have been unable to protect their eggs from the industrial toxins polluting their spawning grounds. By the 1950s Atlantic Salmon had disappeared from the rivers.

That’s why the return of salmon to the 1,165-kilometer-long Elbe river is such an encouraging success. In the Czech part of the river, they had been missing since 1954, when the last salmon were recorded. From then until the German reunification in 1989, the river was a fetid wasteland.

Living Elbe project leader Roberto Epple describes it this way:

People were living with their back to the river, it stunk and was covered with poisonous foam, children were forbidden to come close to it, there were no fishermen, no life.

The end of the Cold War and the reunification of Germany made international cooperation on environmental issues possible. German states bordering the river cooperated to clean up the Elbe and reintroduce salmon. Shortly before the end of the 20th century, Czechoslovakia came on board.

Water has been cleaned. Fish ladders have been built. Salmon once again spawn in the Elbe and its tributaries. A few years later they swim to the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. Then they answer the mysterious call to end their life cycle back in the spawning grounds where it began.

The work isn’t over. New threats continue to arise. Living Elbe continues its efforts to safeguard the river.

But the difference between 1989 and today is an encouraging example of what we can do when we take responsibility for the consequences of our actions and act to remediate the damage we have done.

This gives me hope.


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