Jun 7, 2008

Forbes: Should the U.S. privatize its rivers?

At the same time Iceland is enjoying its biggest salmon catches in 40 years, the U.S. Atlantic salmon population, which once ran from the Housatonic in Connecticut to Maine's Canadian border, has collapsed. Maine's salmon were declared an endangered species in 2000.

Chalk it up to a difference in property rights. In Iceland the right to fish belongs to landlords whose properties include the rivers' banks. These owners maximize their catch of dollars by pooling their rights into syndicates that sell a limited number of permits for stiff fees. Typically only five to ten anglers at a time would be permitted to fish 20 miles of river.

Owners of river access in Iceland do more than restrict output and fix prices; they invest in the asset. They buy out commercial netsmen, build and run hatcheries, build salmon ladders, remove boulders from pools and spawning grounds, and patrol for poachers.

That can't happen here--at least not under present law. Repeated Supreme Court decisions have affirmed the public has a right to fish the nation's rivers, whose surface waters are held "in trust" by the states for the people. States can charge for permits, but politics keep fees low.

"Governments shouldn't be in the business of managing or marketing a river," says Orri Vigfússon. "They might as well be opening up a Chinese restaurant. They should leave fishing to the private sector."

~ Forbes, "Privatize U.S. Rivers?," January 28, 2008, by Richard C. Morais

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