There were plenty of theories. Maybe they browsed on the slopes of the continental shelves. Maybe they ranged the North Atlantic in pursuit of the herring shoals. But nobody really knew.
The first indication that the mystery might have been solved came from The Field magazine of London, which early in 1965 reported that very large quantities of frozen Atlantic salmon were reaching European markets from Greenland. The implications were swiftly realized. In Greenland itself there is only one minor salmon river, quite incapable of producing this kind of tonnage. In some way the salmon's migration route had been discovered and was being heavily exploited.
Documentary evidence has now shown that a few salmon had been taken in set nets staked out from the Greenland shore from the 18th century on. But the sudden explosion of this fishery in the early 1960s has not yet been accounted for. Possibly some unexplained change in the feeding habits of the salmon brought greater quantities of them within range of the shore nets. More probably, until modern freezing techniques were available there was no point in exploiting the fishery. Without freezing and fast transport, salmon were worth little compared with cod. In Europe there has been a market for salt cod since the Middle Ages.
Whatever the reason, in 1964 the explosion started. In that year 1,539 metric tons of salmon were taken in the Greenland nets, compared with 127 tons in 1961. Put alongside the annual catch of Pacific salmon, this does not seem much. But the annual catch of Atlantic salmon is less than 15,000 tons.
After 1964 the Greenland catches remained high, except in 1968, when drifting ice from the south hindered the netting and cut the catch down to 1,200 tons—some 400 tons less than 1967. And by then, also, the Greenlanders had competition, for the catches had not gone unnoticed by the sovereign power, Denmark. As early as 1965 a couple of boats from the Faroe Islands—closely associated with Denmark, though enjoying a titular independence—turned up in Davis Strait, which divides Greenland from Canada. They, with the Norwegians, took a share of fish, but in 1967 the real experts arrived, tough Danish fishermen who brought their tiny 30-ton boats all the way up from Bornholm Island in the Baltic. Danes and Faroese took more than 400 tons of salmon last year, when they were joined by Swedish boats.
No figures are yet available for the 1969 season, but it looks like it was a boom year for the nets. Moller told me in Godthaab that local netmen there had already landed 133 tons of salmon by the end of September, compared with 61 tons at the same point in 1968.
The salmon-producing countries reacted swiftly to the news from Greenland. By the fall of 1965 separate teams of British and Canadian scientists were operating in Greenland waters, and they were able to confirm very quickly what had been suspected from the beginning. The Eskimos and the drift netters were harvesting immature fish. More than 95% of the salmon they caught had spent only two summers at sea. They weighed about seven pounds, and they were still feeding heavily on sand eels and capelin. This clearly meant that the Greenland figures had to be examined in a new light: they represented a far greater potential tonnage of mature fish that would not return to the rivers.
The other thing that had to be proved was just whore these salmon had come from. This didn't take long either. Fish tagged as smolts when they left British, Irish, Canadian and U.S. rivers to begin their sea journey were recorded in the Greenland catch. Most of them came from Canada, but some 15% had been spawned in the rivers of Maine, rivers that were just beginning to be nursed back into production after the Atlantic salmon had almost become extinct in U.S. waters.
However, as the Danes have been swift to point out, tag recoveries have not been high. Out of 100,000 smolts tagged leaving British rivers, only 80 tags have been returned in Greenland. There is good reason to believe that many tags are not reported.
In Sukkertoppen this fall, the European trade inspector told me that there would be no difficulty in arranging for me to go out with Eskimo salmon fishermen to haul nets. But postponement succeeded apologetic postponement. The netmen, fully aware that their new prosperity was under attack by foreigners, weren't going to have me on board at any price. Hostile groups formed when I went down to the quay to photograph the salmon boats leaving harbor. One doesn't have to be cynical, in such circumstances, to doubt that the Eskimos return all the tags they find.