A new paper in the journal Nature (Costello et al 2012) argues that whaling can be greatly limited or ended by developing a market for whales. By purchasing a whale, a nation, group or individual can either kill and sell it or let it live. In essence, whaling nations would be paid not to hunt whales and the price for this could be less than (largely ineffective) anti-whaling campaigns cost.
The paper begins:
Despite the International Whaling Commission’s (IWC) moratorium on commercial whaling beginning in 1986, the number of whales taken has more than doubled since the early 1990s. Almost 2,000 whales are now harvested each year — roughly 1,000 for ‘scientific purposes’ (by Japan), 600 by countries that object to the ban (Norway and Iceland), and 350 for subsistence (mainly by Denmark, Russia and the United States). Many populations of large whales have been severely depleted and continue to be threatened by commercial whaling.
The persistence of largely unregulated whaling has sparked heated debate about whether the IWC, long hamstrung by management and ethics issues, should again permit formally sanctioned whaling. In 2010, some anti-whaling nations proposed a compromise: establishing quotas for sanctioned whaling that would still reduce the overall number of whales taken. After much wrangling, the deal fell through — largely because many anti-whaling groups had a fundamental problem with setting quotas at all, because they felt that these would appear to legitimize commercial whaling. Some people blame Japan for the deal’s collapse, because the country refused to sign up to a proposed zero quota on whale catches in the Southern Ocean.
We propose an alternative path forward that could break the deadlock: quotas that can be bought and sold, creating a market that would be economically, ecologically and socially viable for whalers and whales alike. Because conservationists could bid for quotas, whalers could profit from whales even without harvesting the animals. A market would therefore open the door to reducing mortality without needing to battle over whether whaling is honourable or shameful.
I remember first hearing about this idea from Steve Gaines, study co-author and dean of the Bren School at UCSB, as he cooked me dinner one night last year. He was incredibly excited about it. I was excited about the fancy wine and soup he was making with veggies from his garden, but his crazy idea did make sense.
I have gotten involved in a similar payment-for-protection scheme via one of my hobbies, The Blue Carbon Project. We are developing a market systems to pay shrimp famers not to cut down mangrove forests. The goal is essentially to turn them into mangrove farmers. In this case, the payments will come from the carbon trading markets (mangroves are very efficient at sequestering carbon).
But mangroves don’t have all of the emotional baggage of whales. Surely, someone or some group will argue that putting a price on the life of a whale is amoral or at least unseemly. I can’t deny that. But we put a price on dogs, cats, fish and countless other intelligent mammals. And guess what; we even put a price on human life. A market price is how we value things in capitalism. Even life.
In such a system, ‘whale shares’ would be allocated in sustainable numbers to all member nations of the IWC, who would have the choice of exercising them, leaving them unused for a year or retiring them in perpetuity. The shares would be tradable in a carefully controlled global market, perhaps with the restriction that members could not trade whale products with non-members. The number of whales hunted would depend on who owned the shares. At one extreme (in which whalers purchase all the shares), whales would be harvested to the agreed sustainable level. At the other extreme (where conservationists purchase all the shares), all whales would be protected from harvest.
One of the really tricky things is how to initially allocate the “whale shares” among nations. I would think this could be done based on recent actual catch reports (thus financially penalzing nations that underreported their annual whale harvest!).
Simple calculations based on current market prices, whale sizes and whaling costs, suggest that the per-whale profit for whalers is in the ballpark of $13,000 for a minke whale to $85,000 for a fin whale.
A conservative estimate of the amount spent annually by non-profit organizations on anti-whaling (based on the expenditures of Greenpeace USA, Greenpeace International, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, WWF International and WWF UK) is $25 million. Rather than supporting anti-whaling protests and movements (and their accompanying carbon footprint), this money could be used to purchase whales, arguably with the same or better effect. Sea Shepherd, for example, estimates that its multimillion-dollar 2008 campaign saved about 350 minke whales in Antarctic waters. By our calculations, those whales could have been purchased for less than $4 million.
Properly designed, a whale market could accommodate important concerns such as the by-catch of whales in fisheries or whale ship strikes. It could even be integrated with other market approaches, such as a recent proposal to apply carbon credits to live whales. By placing an appropriate price tag on the life of a whale, a whale conservation market provides an immediate and tangible way to save them.