Thursday, April 4, 2013

Catch shares the indigenous way

A blog of Bridge Environment, updated most Thursdays

Salmon, by often-uncredited artist, Bill Reid
Over the past two weeks, I’ve discussed catch shares, a system that assigns percentages of each year’s annual catch quota to individual fishermen or fishing companies. In the first blog entry, I focused mostly on benefits. It was one of my most viewed entries ever. In the second, I focused on weaknesses. Readership dropped to levels not seen since I introduced a new graphical technique or pressed my lucky by posting a third consecutive entry about climate change. Maybe there is something to keeping it positive, or perhaps the third time is the failure, not the charm. From that feedback, you’d think I wouldn’t post a third entry about catch shares…I guess I’m just stubborn. Rest easy, though, I will not attempt to introduce a new graphical technique in this blog entry!

Back in mid-January, I discussed the concept of sustainability and its embodiment in certain forms of traditional fisheries management. I then asked the question: does it take a dictator to manage a fishery? In particular, I noted that sustainable traditional fisheries management seemed to come from societies with authoritarian rule, and suggested that a more effective dialog with fishing communities, along with long-term planning regarding sustainability options, was an alternate solution. This week, I consider whether property rights might also be a sustainable alternative to authoritarian rule.

This topic came to my mind shortly after I posted the first entry about traditional fisheries management. My office is located across the street from the University of Washington’s School for Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences. In late January, the speaker at the School’s weekly seminar was Virginia Butler, from Portland State University. She described indigenous cultures in the Oregon/Washington area as well as those in Alaska, and had a similar message of sustainability to the one I had written about that week. However, her belief was that the sustainability came from a strong affinity with the salmon resource, very different from mine of authoritarian rule. This made me think carefully about how a system of sustainable management might evolve, noting that an unstructured society would probably suffer from the tragedy of the commons, where too many people were pursuing too few fish.

Because of that, property rights would most likely be an essential and natural part of the process. Consider that the salmon resource passes through a bottleneck that, with simple weir technology, can be monopolized if the key location, in the case the river mouth, can be defended from others. This phenomenon of people monopolizing salmon resources by controlling river mouths is not purely speculation. According to Keith Criddle, fish packers regularly created these sorts of monopolies in Alaskan salmon fisheries following European contact, and dissatisfaction with the authoritarian methods used by fish packers contributed to the movement for statehood and a ban on salmon traps enacted shortly after Alaska that  movement succeeded. Indigenous people may have had similar monopolies long before European contact. This sort of monopoly is very much akin to having a catch share, in this case the whole share. Along with the current and future benefits from controlling the resource would come the incentive to manage it sustainably. According to Dr. Criddle, monopolist fish packers revitalized and sustained salmon fisheries under their control through sustainable management practices. Management systems like the ones I described in my blog entry about traditional salmon fisheries of northern California would have been sustainable and relatively easy to enforce from the mouth of the river by indigenous people. Successful monopolization of the salmon run would bring power and wealth to those in control. In this way, sustainable harvests and authoritarian rule may have evolved together. That religious beliefs also played a role may mean that religion, in this case, was co-opted to further a dictatorship, just the opposite of Dr. Butler’s view that reverence for salmon drove management.

Though my hypothesis involves a number of emotionally-laden concepts, the world that resulted may not have been terrible. In pre-State Alaska, apparently the fish packers abused their standing to shut out subsistence fishing operations and exploit their workers. Among indigenous tribes, though, it appears that power and wealth were shared more generously. In both cases, salmon resources were managed in a way that produced a greater bounty for communities as a whole. However, there may have been problems with such principles as equity, liberty, and the potential for the abuse of power.

These same concerns drive opposition to modern-day catch shares. If you think about it, it is a form of authoritarian rule to give fishing rights to a select few and prevent others from using a public resource. So, rather than serving as an alternative to authoritarian rule, catch shares are really just a mild version. As with indigenous tribes, this may or may not be a bad thing because it involves trade-offs. When it comes to conservation considerations, we should keep in mind that there are alternatives, for example a system of catch limits designed to meet the needs of the ecosystem and fishing communities. Catch limits of this sort should be enacted with or without catch shares. In the end, using catch shares is more of an economic decision than a conservation one and should be treated as such.


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