Fisheries Classics: The Pacific Salmon Fisheries

A while ago, I had the opportunity to read Crutchfield and Pontecorvo’s book on the Pacific salmon fisheries. The Pacific Salmon Fisheries, published in 1969 and subtitled A Study of Irrational Conservation, was an early contribution to the empirical literature on fisheries economics. The subtitle clearly signalled Crutchfield and Pontecorvo’s opinion on both the current and historic regulations of the fisheries. Perhaps the status as a ‘classic’ can be debated; notwithstanding, its scope and ambition is nothing but impressive: The Pacific Salmon Fisheries discusses theory, describes the various salmon fisheries along the North-American Pacific coast; the gear, the environment, the regulations, and their histories, it discusses the different fisheries potential and performance, and finally alternative regulations.

My favorite part of the book is the illustrations of overfishing and overcapitalization in both the Alaskan and Puget Sound fisheries. In particular, Figures 9 and 10 on pages 58 and 59 highlight the problems in the Alaskan fisheries:

From the figures, it is clear that in the period 1930’s to 1960’s, while total catch went down (top curves in both panels), average catch per fishermen went down (left, middle curve), total number of fishermen went up (bottom, left curve), and gear use (middle and bottom, right curves) went up: More men with more gear catching less fish. Two simple pictures illustrating the fundamental fisheries problem: The Tragedy of the Commons. Why did this happen? After all, the Alaskan fisheries were old fisheries already in the 1930’s and assumed to be in rent-dissipated equilibria. It turns out, however, that prices of salmon increased steadily throughout the period (see Figure 8, p. 57).

An interesting and amusing thing about the figures in The Pacific Salmon Fisheries are that they are handdrawn and, for the most part and of unknown reasons, not on a linear scale. Perhaps there was an agenda involved?

Crutchfield and Pontecorvo’s analysis of the fisheries in the Puget Sound did not produce any happier conclusions. They wrote:

As long as the present situation continues, there can be no real hope of economic health in the fishery. Any increase in relative prices of salmon is promptly swallowed up by increased entry, rising costs, and more stringent pressure on the physical resource and those charged with its management. It simply leads to a new equilibrium, no more satisfactory than the previous one, with a net loss to the economy as a whole as more factors of production are trapped in the fishery (p. 196).

To me, The Pacific Salmon Fisheries represents the first, truly convincing evidence of overcapitalization in fisheries and is certainly a classic all fisheries economists should be familiar with.

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