Proposed dams threaten endangered salmon

  • 2001-11-08
  • Nick Coleman
STAICELE - The banks of the Salaca River, quietly winding below Daina Avotina's guest house, are resplendent with autumn colors. But her mood is dark. A proposed dam threatens to kill off the Baltic Sea's last remaining wild salmon and any hope of attracting tourists.

"The dam is an awful idea," she said. "Water tourists won't come any more as the river banks will be ruined."

Janis Bakmanis, the mayor of the small town of Staicele, 100 kilometers north of Riga in the North Vidzeme Biosphere Reserve, remains determined to see a dam built on the Salaca, Latvia's most important salmon river.

With the national energy utility paying double rates for electricity produced without adding to global warming, the dam is a chance to create wealth and jobs, he says.

But dams at Staicele and 165 other locations across Latvia proposed by communities and entrepreneurs hoping to cash in on well-intentioned plans to boost sustainable energy production could spell the end of wild salmon in the Baltic Sea.

Pollution and the damming of rivers around the Baltic have resulted in 85 percent of Baltic salmon being reared in hatcheries.

Many of the remaining wild Baltic salmon are born in 10 Latvian rivers, from which they swim to the open sea before returning to their birthplace to reproduce.

Andis Mitans, director of the Latvian Fisheries Research Institute, says Latvian-born wild salmon could prove vital for the future of the whole Baltic Sea because of their invulnerability to M74, a mysterious illness that devastated salmon stocks in the mid-1990s and is again on the rise.

"Maybe Latvia's salmon have not suffered from heavy metals in the environment, or maybe there is a genetic component, but we do know they are good salmon," said Mitans.

In Soviet times scientists designed an elevator to lift migratory fish over one of the huge dams constructed on Latvia's largest river, the Daugava, from which 60 percent of the country's electricity comes.

The idea was abandoned, but fish ladders, a more recent innovation that helps them swim up dams, have largely failed to lure fish to the fast-flowing upper reaches in which they mate.

Opponents of the Staicele dam hope a critical evaluation by the state's Environmental Impact Assessment Agency last month may abort the project.

The study concluded that a dam on the Salaca would threaten not only salmon but sea trout, lamprey and vimba, an East European bream on which nearby fishing communities depend.

"Aside from the big dams on the Daugava there are now 91 small hydroelectric power stations in Latvia. These give no money to local people, few jobs, and provide just 0.4 percent of the country's electricity," said Andris Urtans, an official with the biosphere reserve.

Zooming along the reserve's dirt tracks and the odd disused railway line in a mud-spattered car, Urtans excitedly points out an old blacksmith's workshop, a historic staging house for mail coaches, a wetland trail and an educational center.

All are raw materials, he says, for an eco-tourism industry commonplace in some parts of the world but unknown in much of formerly communist Eastern Europe, where rural people have often experienced little more than poverty and unemployment in the last decade.

Daina Avotina has begun to profit from northern Latvia's attractions, which also include rare orchids, white storks nesting on telephone poles and bears.

Retired, she relies on increasing numbers of Latvian and foreign visitors who stay in her creaky wooden house while fishing, canoeing or just wandering the area, to supplement her meager pension.

"This is the first year I've had guests all year round. The town has a strong cultural base - artists, weavers, stonemasons and the like - which would interest tourists if it was developed. But I think there's been some misunderstanding."