“The Pacific Salmon Fisheries: A Study of Irrational Conservation”

Pacific salmon management issues from 1969 ringing true over 40 years later:

“The stakes in salmon conservation are worthy of careful thought.  Even at the depleted levels of the 1960’s, the annual gross value of the Pacific salmon catch to American and Canadian fisherman has averaged over $60 million.  The vicious and continuous political infighting that has plagued the conservation authorities from Alaska to the Columbia River is eloquent testimony to the participants’ awareness of economic considerations in fishery management.  Yet there is little evidence that the development of scientific research-oriented regulation was accompanied by any substantive awareness of the crucial importance of economic factors.

“Our central theme is that rational fishery management must evolve from the objective of maximizing the net economic yield of the resource.  One reason for this approach is that the traditional definition of regulatory objectives in purely physical terms has left conservation authorities vulnerable to political pressures by denying them a vital basis for choice.  The vulnerability comes about in the following way: a fishery shows evidence of ‘over-fishing,’ i.e., aggregate yields may fall, the amplitude of annual oscillations in yield may increase, 0r–more probably–both phenomena are observed.  At the same time, generally in response to an improvement in earnings as a result of a positive income elasticity of demand, fishing effort is increased.  In order to protect the resource, the administrative body created to deal with the problem of ‘over-fishing’ must reduce fishing mortality.  Since the fishery is an open access resource, it is impossible under current conditions to reduce effort by restricting the inputs.  The regulators cannot stop more people using more equipment from going fishing.  In this situation, the obvious alternative is to reduce progressively the efficiency of the individual inputs and thereby reduce the pressure exerted on the resource by a growing number of fishing units.  The resulting drift into greater and greater inefficiency in the use of human and capital resources erodes both control and compliance; and the concomitant deterioration of capital equipment leaves the industry increasingly vulnerable to competition, both foreign and domestic.  At the same time, the basic irrationality of legislated inefficiency tends to cause widespread discouragement and cynicism in the industry.  Failure to develop regulations based on an economic calculus lead to the ad hoc, ‘hole-plugging’ hodgepodge of regulations now characteristic of many fisheries.  It is important to realize that the need for regulation of open access fisheries arises from economic reactions of profit-seeking units.  If this fact is realized, a simple, consistent, and readily enforceable program can be developed.

“The setting for any management of salmon resources is both physical and institutional.  On one side is a set of complex biological problems: How is it possible to manage the population dynamics of an organism that lives in an environment over which the biologist has little control in order to approximate a chosen level of physical yield from the resource?  On the other side, the question arises: How can this be accomplished within the constraints of a given set of legal and social institutions, which lead, in the absence of intervention, to gross inefficiency and waste in the use of both human and physical capital?  Clearly, any meaningful solution for the problems of a commercial fishery must account for both these facets of its structure.  From the standpoint of time and money, the research required to define and quantify the essential physical relations that determine available yield is far more demanding than the economic analysis.  Yet both are essential to any conservation program that could be considered a rational effort to increase the contribution of the resource to human welfare.  Productive fish stocks are a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for optimal use of those stocks.”

Crutchfield, James A., Giulio Pontecorvo.  The Pacific Salmon Fisheries: A Study in Irrational Conservation.  Pages 6-8.  The Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore: 1969.


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