Evolution of property rights to a natural resource: the oyster grounds of the Chesapeake Bay
Economists take an interest in property rights structures because of their importance in the definition of incentive structures. Fisheries have been analyzed as open access resources because they are not often organized around private property rights. The lack of private property rights though should not be taken to imply unlimited access. There is a need to differentiate between situations in which an institutional structure supports a system of common property rights from those in which access to a resources is truly limited.
In this study, a conceptual framework of the structure and workings of property rights to natural resources is developed. This includes a taxonomy of possible property rights structures that differentiates among types and degrees of common and private property. The study then compares and contrasts the differing views in the economics literature on the process by which property rights evolve.
This conceptual framework is used to develop a set of research questions that will structure the inquiry about the evolution of property rights to a specific natural resource, the Chesapeake Bay oyster grounds. The conventional and Institutionalist perspectives are related to fishery management policy and their differences assessed. The Institutionalist perspective is shown to raise questions about the historical development of property rights that would not be considered by conventional economists.
The resulting research questions are used to explain the economic history of the property rights to the Chesapeake Bay oyster grounds from 1607 to 1986. In Maryland and Virginia certain grounds of the Chesapeake Bay are reserved as a public oyster fishery, but, they have been regulated and managed by the states. In the history of the fishery, those who harvest from the public grounds have continually resisted the extension, or even encouragement of oyster cultivation on private leaseholds. The primary advocates of greater privatization of the bottoms have been economists and biologists. The governments of each state have chosen to maintain the commons in order to provide employment for watermen and to more widely distribute income among them.
The results of a survey of Virginia's oyster harvesters are presented. These provide further insights for discussing the role of the watermen in the evolution of property rights, and help to form conclusions on the future of the fishery. This case study leads to the discussion of conclusions on the theory of the economics of property rights.