© James Shooter / scotlandbigpicture.com

Atlantic salmon

Astonishing journeys of a transforming yet precious fish

Our wild isles are a European stronghold for Atlantic salmon, but in 2022 only a quarter of our rivers held sustainable salmon populations – a record low. If we don’t act now to protect our rivers, we risk losing these fish from our isles altogether.

Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar), female, on its migration up river to spawn, in an Environment Agency fish trap (which is a salmon ladder with gates that the staff open once they have recorded the fish). River Caldew, Carlisle, Cumbria, UK
© Linda Pitkin / scotlandbigpicture.com

Epic travellers

Atlantic salmon live extraordinary lives. For up to four years, they stay in cold, fast-flowing streams that provide all they need. Then, called by a strong urge to swim in the salt waters of the Atlantic, their bodies start to transform and they head downstream to feed, grow and follow uncharted pathways.

From tiny fry, these ‘king of fish’ grow to around a metre long and will weigh about 32kg as adults. A second epic migration sees them swim thousands of miles to the very place they hatched. They change again to attract a mate, turning red or green from silver-blue, growing humps. The males' lower jaws extend and they develop sharp teeth.

An Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) on breeding territory on the River Ness, Scotland, UK
© James Shooter / scotlandbigpicture.com

Dangerous journeys

Transformed and focussed, the salmon travel miles upstream, leaping waterfalls and letting nothing stand in their way. Or almost nothing.

Human activity is threatening this species, from the manmade barriers now preventing many salmon from reaching their spawning grounds to the water pollution from agriculture choking the rivers they swim up. Even if they make it and lay their eggs, climate change could soon make the waters of their peaceful streams and tributaries too warm for those eggs to survive.

Salmon are in danger, but there’s a lot we can do to help. We can adopt nature-friendly farming practices to stop pollution, and build dams and weirs with wildlife in mind, allowing salmon as well as eels, trout and other wildlife to travel safely through our waterways. And we can unite against the climate crisis to give salmon a future across the UK.   

Atlantic salmon in numbers


UK rivers with viable salmon population in 2022


height salmon can jump from water!

13 years

oldest recorded age of a salmon

How will you Go Wild Once a Week?

Our wildlife is amazing - but it’s in crisis. WWF, the RSPB and the National Trust are working together to bring nature back from the brink. We need everyone. Find out how you can go wild once a week and together we can save our wild isles.