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How Politics Ruined the Northwest Salmon Fishery

Robert Higgs

When white men began to move into the Pacific Northwest in large numbers in the second half of the nineteenth century, they found numerous aboriginal tribes whose economies centered on a flourishing salmon fishery. The natives took advantage of the salmon’s anadromous life course. These fish are spawned in the gravel beds of mountain streams. As juveniles, they migrate down the rivers to the ocean, where they live most of their adult lives. After two to six years (depending on the species), they return to the exact place of their origin to spawn and die. To capture the returning fish, the Indians employed a variety of fishing gear — traps, weirs, baskets, dip nets, spears, hooks and lines, gaffs, and assorted entangling nets and seines — where the runs became concentrated near the shore or in the rivers. Because the Indian fishers let the fish come to them, rather than sallying forth to catch stilldispersed fish in the open waters, they were
highly productive.

The aborigines possessed property rights over the fishing places at which they captured the returning salmon. As described in a landmark federal court decision, “Generally, individual Indians had primary use rights in the territory where they resided and permissive use rights in the natal territory (if this was different) or in territories where they had consanguineal kin. Subject to such individual claims, most groups claimed autumn fishing use rights in the waters near to their winter villages. Spring and summer fishing areas were often more distantly located and often were shared with other groups from other villages. . . . Control and use patterns of fishing gear varied according to the nature of the gear. Certain types required cooperative effort in their construction and/or handling. Weirs were classed as cooperative property but the component fishing stations on the weir were individually owned.”1

When the whites began to exploit the salmon resource, they improved the harvesting devices, relying on the Indians’ sensible approach of letting the fish come to the fisher. The whites constructed bigger, more productive “fish traps,” elaborate arrangements of netting by which the salmon could be induced to swim into small, nearly inescapable enclosures from which they could be scooped out at the fisher’s convenience at low cost. Along the Columbia River, white fishers also constructed huge automatic “fish wheels,” using the current to turn rotating scoops and often obtaining an enormous catch at low cost per fish.

As the fishery became more exploited, however, the whites began to disregard the productive system the Indians had used for centuries as well as the fishing rights that underpinned it, jeopardizing the survival of the resource. Using long gillnets and large purse seines, mobile fishers proceeded to “get in front of” the established catchers as the salmon proceeded back to their spawning places. Although such fishing methods entailed greater cost per fish caught, they had the advantage of getting the fish first, before the salmon had reached the places where they might be harvested by the more productive stationary gear, such as traps or wheels. (Elsewhere, I have analyzed this socially wasteful “interception externality.”2) The gillnetters got in front of the traps; the purse seiners got in front of the gillnetters; and finally the trollers, using an extremely unproductive hook-and-line technique, got in front of the purse seiners, ultimately ranging far out to sea, chasing the dispersed fish stocks for hundreds of miles.

Coming into conflict, the various gear groups resorted to the Oregon and Washington legislatures. Each group tried to gain an advantage by getting the lawmakers to subject competing groups to legally prescribed technical constraints and to discriminatory taxes and license fees. The legislators might well have given priority catch rights to the highly productive fishers in the terminal fisheries — the Indians and the white trap men, wheel men, and beach seiners—rather than to the relatively unproductive gillnetters, purse seiners, and trollers. Unfortunately, the legislators followed a more counterproductive course. By a series of licensing, tax, and regulatory measures, they restricted all the competing groups, limiting the dimensions of the gear and the times and places of fishing.

In 1926 the gillnetters of Oregon placed on the ballot an initiative to outlaw all fish wheels in Oregon waters and all beach seines and traps on the Oregon side of the Columbia above the Cascades. Supporters of this measure complained that “a few fishwheels took as many fish in 24 hours as the average gill-net fisherman took in 4 years of labor,” whereas opponents asked “by what American principle of fair dealing could the takers of 88 percent of the fish demand confiscation of the large investments in equipment, factories, and labor of those who took less than 7 percent of the fish.”3 The voters approved the initiative by a margin of more than four to three, and the fish-wheel owners lost their court appeal challenging the initiative’s constitutionality.
Thus the magnificently productive fish wheels ceased operation in Oregon forever. In 1927, wheel owner Frank A. Seufert, fuming over his capital loss, painted in large letters on the roof of a barn near his upriver cannery:



Washington State Follows

Washington followed Oregon’s lead. In 1934 sport-fishing interests, gillnetters, purse seiners, and trollers joined forces in placing on the ballot an initiative that, among other things, would outlaw fish traps and wheels in Washington waters. Voters approved the initiative by a margin of more than five to three, and the courts subsequently rebuffed attempts to have the measure declared unconstitutional. Henceforward, with trivial exceptions, fixed harvesting gear was outlawed in Washington.

By banning the stationary gear and by means of many other restrictive statutes, regulations, and court rulings stretching over more than a century, Oregon and Washington ultimately reduced productivity in the salmon harvest to a small fraction of what it had been when the whites first entered the fishery in the late 1800s.5

1.United States v. Washington, 384 F. Supp. 312 (1974), at pp. 352, 353.
2. Robert Higgs, “Legally Induced Technical Regress in the Washington Salmon Fishery,” Research in Economic History 7 (1982), esp. pp. 60-63.
3. Statements from the official voters’ pamphlet, as quoted by Ivan J . Donaldson and Frederick K. Cramer, Fishwheels of the Columbia (Portland, Ore.: Binfords and Mort, 1971), p. 112.
4. Photograph in Donaldson and Cramer, p. 112.
5. For many details, see Higgs, pp. 55-86.

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