Fish Story: First Salmon Caught in Basel in 50 Years

A Swiss fisher reeled in a surprise on Sunday. The Swiss environment ministry confirmed Wednesday that the hobby fisher had caught the first salmon seen in Basel for half a century.

A fish using one of the fish ladders in the eastern French town of Gambsheim. Fish ladders are one of many measures intended to lure salmon back into the formerly polluted Rhine River.

A fish using one of the fish ladders in the eastern French town of Gambsheim. Fish ladders are one of many measures intended to lure salmon back into the formerly polluted Rhine River.

A amateur fisherman in Switzerland made the catch of a lifetime last Sunday when he reeled in the first salmon seen in Basel in the last half a century. Experts hail the fish as a sign that efforts to help salmon return to Basel are working and that the species may soon find its way back to the landlocked country in larger numbers.

"It's crazy, I can still hardly believe it," Thomas Wanner, 39, told the local Basler Zeitung. On Wednesday, Switzerland's Environment Ministry confirmed to the press that the 36-inch (91-centimeter) fish was indeed a salmon, based on a photo Wanner took of the fish with his mobile phone before releasing it back into the Birs River near where it flows into the Rhine.

The size of the fish indicates that it travelled all the way down the Rhine to the open sea before returning upstream to spawn, Erich Staub, an official with the Environment Ministry, told the Associated Press. The round-trip journey is roughly 1,200 miles (2,000 kilometers) through Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands.

From Basel to the ocean.

From Basel to the ocean.

In the 19th century, salmon were so plentiful in the Rhine that they were used to feed the poor. In the 1930s, salmon were still relatively plentiful in Basel, with around 120 of them caught each year. But neither tail nor scale of the animal has been seen since 1958.

On Sunday, Wanner at first thought he had a large trout on the line. A passerby noticed Wanner struggling to reel in his catch and came over to help. As luck would have it, the passerby was Olivier Schmidt, a hobby fisher himself and a curator at Basel's Natural History Museum. Schmidt took the digital photo to the Environment Ministry for confirmation that the fish was indeed a salmon.

Staub said the catch was probably the result of efforts to encourage salmon to return to Basel by releasing 50,000 eggs per year into Swiss rivers.

It is also a coup for a long-term project called "Salmon 2000," launched 20 years ago partly in response to a 1986 chemical disaster when pesticides were released into the Rhine. The Association of German Sports Anglers call it "one of the most elaborate species protection measures in human history," with countries along the Rhine cooperating to clean rivers polluted by industrial waste.

Salmon have been spotted in other sections of the Rhine River in recent years. None, however, had been seen as far upstream as Basel.

rbn -- with wire reports

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