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Common Property: What Does It Mean for Alaska Salmon Fishermen?

Common property, or "common use," balances public access and regulation. Alaska's constitution makes salmon a common property open to all.

by | February 8, 2022

A seiner at Resurrection Bay participates in Alaska's common property salmon fishery.
A seiner at Resurrection Bay participates in Alaska’s common property salmon fishery.

The term “common property” comes up often in discussions about Alaska commercial salmon fisheries. It can be a little confusing because the term also refers to how courts in some states divide property in a divorce. When it comes to fishing, however, the term comes from economics, not law. Learn more about the concept of common resource property. Also, find out how the state manages these resources and how common property is different from a true public resource. 

Why We Must Manage Common Resources

Economists refer to “common resources” as a type of good that is particularly difficult to regulate. It’s also difficult to control access for specific groups. This is why we call these kinds of goods “common pool resources,” or “common access resources.” When the term “common property” comes into play, it refers to the legal rights different public groups have to access this property.

The difference between a “public good” and a “common good” is the scarce nature of common goods. For instance, wind is a public good that does not measurably diminish when people sail boats or build turbine towers. Salmon, on the other hand, is a common good where regulation ensures there are enough returns to repopulate the fishery. Rivalries can build up between common good users in a way that would almost never happen with true public resources.

Economist Garrett Hardin coined the term “tragedy of the commons” to shows why it’s critical to regulate access to common resources. For example, a farmer grazes his cattle in a common meadow. Meanwhile, a second farmer sees the rich grass and moves his cattle there as well. Other farmers, acting in their self-interest, join in and, eventually, the cows devour the entire meadow. 

In Hardin’s view, three factors — scarcity, rivalry, and non-excludability — cause this “tragic” outcome. Each of the farmers “wins” by consuming as much of the meadow as they can before the others. On the other hand, no single farmer wants to spend money to maintain the meadow if others can benefit from the investment. Therefore, only an outside agency or the collective will of the farmers can prevent overgrazing.

Common Property Rights in Alaska Salmon Fisheries

The salmon fisheries of Alaska are a prime example of the tragedy of the commons. Prior to statehood, the federal government managed these fisheries but allowed salmon canneries to build efficient traps. With these structures, processors could control the entire harvest of a river or stream.

Article 8 of the Alaska constitution provides specific protection for Alaska’s fisheries, including salmon, in the sections quoted here:

Section 2: General Authority — The legislature shall provide for the utilization, development, and conservation of all natural resources belonging to the State, including land and waters, for the maximum benefit of its people.

Section 3: Common Use — Wherever occurring in their natural state, fish, wildlife, and waters are reserved to the people for common use.

Section 4: Sustained Yield — Fish, forests, wildlife, grasslands, and all other replenishable resources that belong to the State shall be utilized, developed, and maintained on the sustained yield principle, subject to preferences among beneficial uses.

A 1972 constitutional amendment allows limited entry into Alaska’s fisheries. It also provides for the development of aquaculture to enhance those fisheries:

Section 15: No Exclusive Right of Fishery — No exclusive right or special privilege of fishery shall be created or authorized in the natural waters of the State. This section does not restrict the power of the State to limit entry into any fishery for purposes of resource conservation, to prevent economic distress among fishermen and those dependent upon them for a livelihood and to promote the efficient development of aquaculture in the state.

The Origin of CIAA’s Common Property Fisheries Mission

After years of depressed salmon fishing, the state focused on restoring and enhancing salmon runs. This led to a series of laws that established the following:

  • 1971 — The state establishes the Division of Fisheries Rehabilitation, Enhancement and Development. This new division with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game places a focus on “research and salmon hatcheries (p.23).”
  • 1972 — Following the “No Exclusive Right” amendment to the state constitution, the legislature enables hatcheries to collect broodstock. Hatcheries produce fertilized eggs for future runs and can cover operating expenses through salmon harvests called “cost recovery.”
  • 1974 — The legislature authorizes private non-profit organizations to build and operate hatcheries.
  • 1976 — The legislature creates regional aquaculture associations, such as the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association (CIAA). Boards are made up of fishermen from the commercial, sport, and subsistence sectors along with fish processors and community representatives.
  • 1980 — The legislature authorizes a 1 to 3 percent tax, which a region’s commercial fishermen may impose upon themselves. In Cook Inlet, fishermen set the tax at 2 percent.

The commercial salmon harvest is common property with one exception. Salmon hatcheries benefit from harvests in designated areas in “cost recovery fisheries” to recover operational costs. The common property harvest is available to commercial fishing permit holders, and to sport, personal use and subsistence fishermen. 

The salmon enhancement tax produces revenue for aquaculture that reduces cost recovery needs. As hatchery programs mature, producing more robust adult returns, there’s more fish left over for common property. This results in more tax revenue and less cost recovery.

Habitat and Monitoring

Learn how the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association protects and builds the common resource of salmon through habitat improvements and monitoring of returns.

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