Salmon Conservation in Scotland: A History of Legislative Tradition and Private Action

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Iain Robertson’s history of the salmon fisheries in Scotland is a rare and fascinating look at the conservation of a natural resource over hundreds of years.  His study is especially poignant because the struggles it reveals remain pervasive today—how can conservation and commerce, competing users of natural resources, and radical changes in the technologies used to harvest these resources all be accommodated?

As the history of the Scottish salmon fisheries demonstrates, it is no easy task, and there are no easy answers.  But the Scottish example does offer an approach that has successfully weathered centuries of change—“from the first enactments the Scots law has devolved to private individuals and associations the responsibility for salmon conservation.”

This devolution has hardly been a pure one, as private action, politics, and legislative change have all affected the evolution of the salmon fisheries.  But it is this very mix that points to the strongest policy implication that can be inferred from Iain Robertson’s history—that the more secure and comprehensive the rights to a natural resource like the salmon fishery, the more people will tend to invest in conservation and the less conflicts will result between different types of owners and interests.

In the case of the Scottish salmon fisheries, it seems that the most successful and conservation-minded initiatives came from those who saw an opportunity to capitalize on conservation, from John Richardson’s efforts to monitor the impacts of netting on salmon populations in the 18th century, to anlgers who bought up commercial netting rights in the 20th.  When opportunities arose to either ban conflicting harvesting methods or simply to expropriate others’ rights, conservation seemed to fall by the wayside and innovation focused simply on catching more fish.  Conflict-resolving, conservation-oriented solutions are more likely to evolve when the law speaks decisively on the definition of rights and therefore fosters private, market solutions.

Of course, this is not just history.  Recreational vs. commercial conflicts are commonplace today.  In the United States, there have recently been a series of local ballot initiatives to ban various commercial fishing gears.  These political fights cause widespead rancor, only lead to more political fights down the road, and certainly do little if anything for the fish or the marine environment.  If the rights to fish were stronger, no doubt anglers and commercial fishermen would turn their attention to protecting and enhancing the very fish stocks on which they both depend.