"He's a snake in the grass, I tell ya guys; he may look dumb but that's just a disguise; he's a mastermind in the ways of espionage." Charlie Daniels, "Uneasy Rider" Avatar, tragedy of the socialized commons and crashing salmon stocks; how the dirty hands of government destroy wild resources - TT's Lost in Tokyo

Avatar, tragedy of the socialized commons and crashing salmon stocks; how the dirty hands of government destroy wild resources

It's a sad, sad story, now being played out practically wherever wild salmon stocks once were abundant. (This version refers to the Pacific Northwest, particularly to events in British Columbia).

First, national governments wrest control over salmon fisheries from native peoples, and eliminate low-level, community-based management systems.

With new socialized ownership, it becomes eternal "open season" on salmon and newcomers (whites or whatnot) go hog wild, resulting in the classic "tragedy of the commons" race to catch salmon before others do, without regard to others or to future harvests.

The state steps in to regulate take, banning nets at river mouths -- smart fishermen take their nets to sea. Governments find themselves compelled to further regulate seasons and fishing gear, as fishermen who have no ownership stake in the resource look for ways to beat restrictions and to beat out competitors for unowned fish. Natives who don't join in the race are left with ever slimmer takes.

As no one owns the salmon and has no legal rights that can be enforced against upstream users, governments build dams to benefit farmers (and nuclear bomb production sites and industry), and developers and loggers begin to trash streams and rivers. Reacting to howls from interested citizens, states begin to pass laws limiting the rights of property owners to use and manage their properties.

Governments get into the salmon hatchery business as salmon stocks start to plummet, and endangered species protection laws get passed. Loggers, developers, farmers and industries with cheap hydropower vent anger over "capitalism-hating" enviros and legislators, even as governments eager to please favored constituencies (farmers over natives, naturally) divert water in summer from dams to farmers, leading to large fish kills in lower and warmer rivers.

As fish stocks continue to fall, enterprising businesses get licenses from regional governments to "farm" salmon by raising them in pens (using ocean water flows, and catching and grinding up five pounds of other fish to raise one pound of salmon). Farms begin to proliferate - and begin to be seen by fishermen as externality-generating machines: farmed salmon become plagued with sea lice, which spreads to migrating wild populations, concentrations of salmon pollute neighboring waters, wild salmon populations begin to fall drastically, and other "feed stocks" of salmon are adversely affected.

Alarmed local people and adversely affected fishermen and natives organize, try to get consumers to stop buying farmed salmon, and go, hat in hand, to petition (1) governments to stop licensing new "farms" and (2) farms to adopt much more expensive methods that would seal of the farms from the wild environment. Salmon farming companies assert that they have rights to pollute, and no legal responsibility for damages suffered by others - that licensing regimes eliminated common-law rights to sue for nuisance, etc. Farmers tell governments to be "fair" and that governments should "co-invest" to subsidize any new farming methods.

Predictably, as wild salmon dwindle and temperatures rise, no one seems to wonder what things would be like if governments stopped trying to "manage" the salmon and playing the middleman, but found some way to recognize property/harvesting rights and to enforce basic common law rights against nuisance, and stepped out of the way.

I made some of these points in an email I sent today to some parties at interest:

I sent the following note to WildSalmonCircle.com when I joined their mailing list; some of you might be interested:
Yes, one of your chief enemies are the salmon farmers, but the real reason for the problem is that the government - and not the First Nation or any other fishermen - owns the wild salmon.
As a result, the First Nations, commercial and sports fisherment and other supporters of wild slmon and natural ecosystems have NO direct rights to protect the wild salmon and are largely relegated to feebly petitioning government (and the farming companies, whose managers are obliged to care first and foremost for profits generated for owners), and have little or no ability to directly sue the salmon-farming interlopers whose pollution is damaging your livelihood and the greater Northwest ecosystem.
This is exactly the problem we see with many other government-owned/managed resources - in Canada, the US, China, the Amazon, developing countries - and it's why Elinor Ostrom was given the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics. Solutions regarding common resources lie in resource users having recognized rights and an ability to bargain with others in the community. Where governments own resources, then they deny to those whose livelihoods and ways of life are at stake a voice in their own present and future. (In the case of salmon, this has deep, "Avatar"-like roots in the historical pushing aside of native rights and resource management practices in favor of new, Western-dominated governments.)
So, to First Nations and fishermen, I say - sue the farmers directly for nuisance pollution - assert your rights! Don't leave them simply as another interest group petitioning government.

But also start pushing for direct, recognized property rights in the wild salmon, which would end the "tragedy of the commons" resulting from a free-for-all ocean take. Ending ocean take and replacing it with traditional river-mouth-based harvests will better protect the wild resource and give you stronger rights to make claims on those upstream who poison and damage habitat. And take a page out of the book of Target US, and organize a CONSUMER BOYCOTT OF ALL FARMED SALMON. And work to eliminate all legislative grants to insiders of immunity to lawsuits for activities that damage the economic interests of others (i.e., that produce "nuisances").

Published Wed, Feb 17 2010 11:22 PM by TokyoTom