In the 1974 movie The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, the character played by Richard Dreyfuss realizes his most cherished dream: buying his own land north of Montréal, in Ste-Agathe-des-Monts, a village still largely unknown in the 1950s. Duddy’s ambition is to own these virgin spaces, a fisherman’s paradise crowded with trees and overlooking a wonderful lake. As his grand-father keeps repeating: A man without a land is nobody.
Americans watching this movie might believe the province of Québec is a place where one can buy a beautiful domain on a desert lake and indulge in high-quality fishing, only two hours away from an international airport. The sad truth is that, like so many others, the setting of this movie is a fantasy land.
There was a time when fishing in Québec was a dream come true. A favorite vacation spot where the North American upper-crust loved to wet a line. High-quality fishing, open spaces, clean air, calmness; Québec had everything to attract true nature lovers. This era is unfortunately over; bucolic rêverie is still possible, but nowadays management of fisheries in this province is darkened by frustrating waiting lists, overcrowded lakes, and an overall decline in the quality of the experience.
Up until the mid-1970s, fishing rights in the province of Québec were mostly granted to private interests, either to pourvoiries – private enterprises, also called outfitters, offering fishing and lodging to a vast clientèle – or to private fishing clubs. Private interests were kings of the domain, ensuring that fish stocks and the quality of fish remained at their very best. Now both have declined dramatically, forcing genuine anglers to turn their backs on Québec.
The reason for the decline in fish stocks and in the quality of the remaining fish is far from clear. Although the industrial pollution of the last thirty years could be one culprit, much of the blame seems to rest squarely on the significant reshuffling of fishing rights that happened in the late 1970s. The change in the property rights régime from private ownership to public management left most of Québec’s waters to the care of public officials, bureaucrats, and volunteer workers. The decline in fish stocks appears to have occurred in the immediate years following the province’s decision to seize exclusive fishing rights from private interests in order to allow the general public to fish as much as they wanted in the province’s countless lakes and rivers.
The case of Québec suggests a strong correlation between the property of fishing rights and the quality of fish stocks. In the late 1970s, Opération Déclubage – a provincial initiative to revoke private leases – took away exclusive fishing rights from private clubs and gave the general public easy access to the province’s lakes and rivers. According to the anglers I interviewed, this shift from private to public control led to what many consider a disaster. Twenty years after Opération Déclubage, public managers are incapable of dismissing such a claim because they are unable to provide the public with clear information on the state of the resource.
As Aristotle said long ago, “Those things which are owned by the greatest number of people are the least well cared for.” It appears that by opening the waters to the public, Opération Déclubage has caused, at least partly, the general decline in the quality of fishing in the province of Québec. This paper is an attempt to demonstrate that leaving the waters to the care of unaccountable managers leads to a decline in fish stocks, and that a clear system of private property rights is better suited to ensuring resource conservation – not just in Quebec but everywhere the opportunity exists for private river stewards to improve fisheries management.