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In Northwest pre-contact property rights served fish better than now

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BOZEMAN, Mont. - Traditional property rights of the Pacific Northwest tribes did a far better job of protecting salmon fisheries than does the current United States legal structure, argues a new report from a free-market oriented research center with close ties to Interior Secretary Gale Norton.

The report from PERC (the Property and Environment Research Center), a 23-year-old "think tank" based in this western Montana college town, says that the current "command and control approach to salmon management has failed to promote thriving fisheries" and that the "early Native American system" based on clan rights to fishing grounds provided a better way.

The author, Manuel Nikel-Zueger, writes that tribes claimed specific fishing sites on all salmon streams and that their rights included all the fish that would normally return, without human interception. "Other people could not rob the fish by catching them before they arrived at established fishing sites."

These rights, said the report, were enforced through combat and the cultural ceremony of the potlatch, and they led to the most efficient use of the fisheries. "Families and individuals who had exclusive rights to certain fishing sites had an incentive to invest time and resources to make the sites as productive as possible. Indians developed impressive weirs, nets, traps, spears, and other technologies to catch salmon."

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White settlement, however, completely changed the property structure, said Nikel-Zueger, turning the fisheries into "open-access commons." This system emphasized ocean fishing and interception of returning runs. It led to "the tragedy of the commons," which to free-market analysts means that an individual gets the full benefit of taking as much as he can but bears only a part of the cost of depleting the resource. With no individual incentive "to sacrifice current catch for long-term future harvests," the result is over-fishing and severe depletion of the stock.

Nikel-Zueger cited a study that said before white settlement, Yakama Indians caught 160,000 of the 500,000 salmon that ran annually in Washington state's Yakima River. By 1900 the run was only one-tenth that size, and by the 1930s, the Yakama only harvested between 1,000 and 1,500 fish. "Indians had lost a considerable amount of wealth, and so had whites, as the run strength was rapidly depleted by the open-access fishery."

Government has responded with regulations limiting the fishing season and the size of the catch, but the report argues that these interventions have created a new set of inefficiencies "which ultimately decreases both the quality of salmon and the return from fishing." Although Nikel-Zueger calls it impossible to return to the system of Native rights, which applied to sites and not to the fish themselves, he advocates a new kind of "private property rights regime," in which individual fishing quotas could be bought and sold. He also cites private harvesting agreements such as the Chignik Plan, a salmon cooperative developed by fishermen in the Chignik fishery, along the Alaskan peninsula.

The overriding theme of the report, however, is that pre-contact Natives had developed an economically rational system of property rights that produced better results than did the innovations of the Euro-American settlers. This theme is a hallmark of PERC and its Executive Director Terry Anderson, and explicitly counters "the romantic myth" that "American Indian societies held material wealth in low regard and that property rights were nonexistent." Anderson, author of "Sovereign Nations or Reservations? An Economic History of American Indians," served along with Gale Norton on an advisory committee on Interior Department issues for the presidential campaign of George W. Bush.

The title of the report is "Saving Salmon the American Indian Way." It is available at the PERC Web site,