On Friday October 10 this year, there was a sudden spurt of excitement on the banks of the River Rhine in the Swiss city of Basel. A 36-inch Atlantic salmon had just been caught by an amateur angler, Thomas Wanner, at the junction of the Rhine and its Birs tributary. As luck would have it, Olivier Schmidt, a hobby fisherman who is a curator at Basel’s Natural History Museum, was nearby. Schmidt took a photo with his cell phone before releasing the fish back into the river and jubilantly sent the picture to Switzerland’s Environment Ministry to confirm the identity of the salmon.
The salmon, which apparently had migrated 600 miles up the Rhine, was the first to be seen in this part of the Rhine in half a century. Considering that the salmon is the life- symbol of the Rhine, the sighting was considered a good omen for the entire 1,320 km-long river that runs through five countries after it rises in the Swiss Alps near Lake Constance and before it ends at the North Sea at Rotterdam in Holland.
“Every new sighting of salmon, which completely vanished from the Rhine by the 1950s because the river had turned into a toxic soup, is a thumbs-up for Rhine ecologists,” remarked biologist Anne Schulte Wuelver-Leidig, assistant managing director of the International Commission for the Protection of the Rhine (ICPR), headquartered in Koblenz, Germany. “It means that the river is becoming ecologically sound again,” she added, pointing to the Rhine waters, shimmering silvery brown in the autumn light outside her office window.
The Rhine was dismissed as the “Sewer of Europe” in the 1970s due to decades of massive inputs of untreated wastewater from chemical and paper industries, pesticide-guzzling farms as well as domestic settlements plus ship oil spills (the Rhine carries more freight than any other river in Europe). Additionally, the construction of dikes and straightening the water course into a linear shipping line had resulted in the loss of more than 85% of former bank-biodiversity areas. Furthermore, 21 big hydroelectric plants had been built along the river, causing, among other problems, fish to vanish. Regional land reclamation, reckless construction, as well as flood protection structures had restricted the natural floodplains and shortened the river course by 90km, hugely increasing the risk of floods.
The ICPR, which recommends policies to the five Rhine countries- Switzerland, Germany, France, Luxembourg and Holland- was set up way back in 1950. However, it stepped up its efforts ferociously in 1986, after a big chemical spill from the Sandoz plant in Basel killed millions of fish for hundreds of km downstream.
“The Sandoz scare, which came just weeks after the Chernobyl catastrophe in Russia, enabled us to set stringent goals for the river under the ‘Rhine Action Plan for Ecological Rehabilitation’ in 1987,” explained Dr Wuelver-Leidig. “We could set tough targets because the Greens were very strong in Germany and Switzerland at the time.”
The three-phase, 15-year plan aimed at reviving the river by identifying and eliminating the main sources of pollution with a more active regimen of water-quality testing, pollution patrols to keep industry and communities honest, and steep penalties for polluters. Popularly known as the Salmon 2000 project, the plan promoted the idea that the Rhine is a total ecological system, a place where salmon, pike, perch, trout and other fish could thrive once more. In the late 1990s, the plan was renamed Salmon 2020 project because it required a couple more decades to achieve its targets.
But so strictly have its measures been implemented since 1987 that great improvements can be noticed now. “Today, oxygen levels are 100% in most parts of the Rhine system an achievement few experts expected 20 years ago,” Dr Wuelver-Leidig pointed out. “Pollutants like nitrogen compounds, lead, ammonium and phosphorus have been sharply reduced from the very high levels of the 1970s. The populations of shad, trout, sea bream and other fish are up although salmon have not really returned to the river only about 200 have been sighted in some parts since special breeding programmes were launched in the early 1990s.”