The Most Valuable Fish in the World

by Greg Walcher on October 15, 2016

The beauty and bright colors of tropical fish grace many an aquarium, and some people are so into the hobby that they collect the rarest fish. That requires both a fascination with creatures of the deep, and a healthy bank account. Collectors can pay as much as $1,000 for an orange and purple striped fish called a Candy Basslet, or $2,500 for a Wrought Iron Butterflyfish. The Neptune Grouper can bring as much as $5,000 because it lives in waters so deep that both the divers and the fish require slow ascent to avoid the bends.

Some rare and beautiful species can bring even higher prices, depending on the difficulty of finding them. But they all have one thing in common — collectors only pay if they can add the fish to their aquariums. Not so the U.S. government, which attaches massive value to rainbow trout in the Yakima River. Although there is no intention of ever capturing or moving these trout, the Bureau of Reclamation has estimated the value of a single fish at $15,700 to $27,000.
Rainbow Trout
Obviously, that fact is way out of context. The government has not actually paid such an outrageous sum for any trout. Nobody has. The market value of anything is determined by a willing seller and a willing buyer. Yet without the benefit of any such market, that is the estimated value of the fish, according to a Bureau study, a value “derived weighing the ‘non-use’ benefits of the fish.”

The context of such a seemingly-ridiculous assessment is actually more enlightening than anything about the fish themselves. It involves a decades-old water-rights dispute, something the state of Washington has in common with Colorado. In the Yakima Basin, there are more water rights than available water, a common situation in the West. That valley is the source of some of the nation’s best apples, hops, grapes, and other crops — a $3 billion industry. Commercial nurseries there even supply a substantial portion of the fruit trees grown in Palisade, so we have more than an academic interest.

Yakima Basin agricultural water use sometimes conflicts with Indian fishing rights guaranteed by an 1855 treaty with the Yakama Nation, and there have been frequent clashes with environmental groups that oppose all dams and irrigation. After years of effort by local leaders, these factions agreed to a compromise called the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan, a water-management program slated to cost $4 billion over the next 30 years. The essence of the plan is to expand available water supplies in several reservoirs. It involved participation by the irrigation districts, the tribes, local governments, and environmental groups. Much of the money, of course, would come from federal taxpayers. So in 2012 the Bureau of Reclamation was required to do a cost-benefit analysis of the complex series of pumps, tunnels and other structures.

Congress is now about to authorize the first 10 years of the project and the first $200 million, so opponents have focused new attention on that cost-benefit analysis. What they found is troubling. An independent analysis by the state discovered that the Bureau of Reclamation claimed the high costs were offset by similarly high benefits of the project. That included the estimate of the “non-use value” of fish, and thus the $27,000 trout. So the argument rages, not about the project, but about the bogus numbers.

The irony is that the government felt any need at all to inflate the numbers so embarrassingly. The creative project brought together competing interests that had fought over water for generations. Irrigators get 200,000 additional acre-feet from two reservoirs, thanks to a new tunnel connecting the two. The Yakama Nation gets fish passages at both dams. And the environmental groups get something they have long wanted, a new 5,000-acre “community forest,” managed to prevent logging and restore headwaters.

Opponents include a few cabin owners on the two reservoirs concerned about their views and access when water levels drop. And a handful of environmentalists still worry about the precedent of allowing dams to remain in place, much less enhancing them.

Still, there is substantial support for the plan in Washington, and its congressional delegation is mostly united behind the authorizing legislation. The Bureau would have been smarter, and more honest, simply to argue that while the project is incredibly expensive it might help maintain vital agriculture, while also protecting other important values. Then the honest argument could be about the value of agriculture, not about fuzzy math and $27,000 fish.

A version of this column originally appeared in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel October 7, 2016.

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