NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

"Salmon Certificates" Would Help Save Species

March 23, 1999

The National Marine Fisheries Service has extended protected status under the Endangered Species Act to salmon in Washington state and Oregon. Current state and federal efforts to preserve natural fisheries and ration the salmon harvest are not working, and a Washington Institute Foundation study recommends replacing perverse incentives that encourage overfishing with market incentives.

  • Under current law, salmon are treated as a common resource and anyone can buy a license to catch them -- encouraging competitors to catch their quota as quickly as possible without regard for long-range management of the resource.
  • Instead of licenses, the government could issue "salmon certificates" that give their owners an exclusive, enforceable property right to a specified number of salmon.
  • The certificates could be auctioned off annually -- establishing the demand for salmon and the market value of the catch, and providing funds to restore salmon habitat.
  • Such certificates could be sold by their owners to lower- cost fishing operations or to conservationists who wish to retire them.

Free market incentives and private property rights are already working in Washington state and other parts of the world, say researchers. For example,

  • In Willapa Bay, Wash., oyster farmers who own the tidelands have worked for over a century to ensure the bay's waters remain pure.
  • In the north Atlantic, activists have bought private fishing rights, cutting the harvest of wild salmon netted off Greenland and Iceland from 213 metric tons eight years ago to just 12 metric tons today, saving a million fish from the nets.
  • New Zealand's decision in 1986 to issue limited private fishing rights has revived commercial finfish species in the south Pacific.

A salmon certificates policy, conclude researchers, would benefit all stakeholders -- the state, Indian tribes, commercial and recreational fisherman and environmentalists.

Source: Travis W. Misfeldt, "Saving our Salmon: Using the Free Market to Protect the Environment," Policy Brief, March 1999, Washington Institute Foundation, 4025 Delridge Way S.W., Suite 210, Seattle, Wash. 98106, (206) 937-9691.


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