Orri Vigfusson reckons he has caught a few thousand fish in his 68 years, particularly wild Atlantic salmon from the rivers of Scotland, Norway or his native Iceland. These days, though, Vigfússon releases his silvery captives back into the chilly water, awaiting the day when Atlantic salmon from eastern Canada to north-western Spain to Russia's Kola Peninsula are as hardy and plentiful as they are in his favorite angling spot "Big Laxá," the wide lower stretch of Iceland's River Laxá. And for the past 15 years, Vigfússon has pursued grander ways to counter the decline of the salmon population. Through a bit of lateral thinking, he decided to buy out commercial fisheries and do something really simple not fish. His reasoning: "Commercial agreements tend to stick" more than "wishful-thinking resolutions."
In 1989, Vigfússon founded the North Atlantic Salmon Fund (N.A.S.F.), a coalition of conservation groups that, through a string of partnership pacts with governments and fishermen, brought a halt to commercial fishing in the major salmon feeding grounds of Greenland and the Faroe Islands, and on Canada's eastern coast. In return, fishermen received financial compensation and new types of jobs, either in sustainable fisheries (like lump-fish, which yield an inexpensive caviar) or in a revived angling-tourism industry.
But Vigfússon, the Reykjavik-based manufacturer of Icy Vodka (a small premium brand sold in Iceland, Russia and the U.S.), whose family once processed herring, didn't stop there. Later N.A.S.F. accords covered coastal waters of Iceland, southwest England, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as the North Sea. Now, having raised €30 million and benefited over 1,000 fishermen, N.A.S.F. has its eyes on the nets along the Scottish and Irish coasts, and in Norway's fjords. "Why should the Greenland fishermen save their fish to let them be netted in the estuaries of Scottish rivers?"
Pleased with N.A.S.F.'s success so far, Vigfússon sees the end of the campaign just a few years and perhaps another €50,000 in buyouts away. Few would bet against his determination and negotiating skills. After all, he's managed to sell Icelandic vodka to the Russians.