Working Paper No. 00-14:
Property Rights, Salmon Husbandry, and Institutional Change Among Northwest Coast Tribes


D. Bruce Johnsen

Date Posted: 2000

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This research investigates the hypothesis that prior to British sovereignty the native tribes of the Northwest Coast of North America established sophisticated property rights institutions to encourage efficient husbandry of the region's salmon fisheries. The hypothesis asserts that to the extent tribal property rights to salmon streams were clearly defined and enforced tribal leaders had the incentive to maximize the present value of expected returns to the streams under their exclusive control. As rational maximizers they would very likely have invested resources to accumulate private stream-specific knowledge of salmon husbandry. Husbandry could have included selection in favor of preferred biological characteristics such as larger average fish size, larger population size, reduced run variability, advantageous run timing, and home stream loyalty. In many cases, the resulting biological adaptations might have evolved unconsciously, but in other cases they would have had to be the result of counter-intuitive, and therefore purposeful, genetic selection by tribal leaders. The available evidence is broadly consistent with the salmon husbandry hypothesis. This research has important implications for the resolution of native land claims, the formulation of rational environmental policy, and understanding the evolution of customary law. It also sheds light on the conditions under which an early breakthrough in scientific knowledge might lead to dramatic and predictable institutional change.