Working Paper No. 10-14:
Salmon, Science, and Reciprocity on the Northwest Coast


D. Bruce Johnsen

Date Posted: March 2010

Abstract (below)
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Severe depletion of many genetically distinct Pacific salmon populations has spawned a contentious debate over causation and the efficacy of proposed solutions. No doubt the precipitating factor was overharvesting of the commons beginning along the Northwest Coast around 1860. Yet, for millenia before that, a relatively dense population of Indian tribes managed salmon stocks that have since been characterized as “superabundant.” This study investigates how they avoided a tragedy of the commons, where, in recent history, commercial ocean fishers guided by scientifically informed regulators have repeatedly failed. Unlike commercial fishers, the tribes enjoyed exclusive rights to terminal fisheries enforced through rigorous reciprocity relations. The available evidence is compelling that they actively husbanded their salmon stocks for sustained abundance.