Can we save whales by buying them?

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.


8 Responses to “Can we save whales by buying them?”

  1. ECO says:

    This is lame; it is like paying ransom. I’ll continue to support ramming/sinking their ships instead!

    • John Bruno says:

      What’s wrong with ransom? I don’t like paying it, but I do whenever Emmett kidnaps my cat. But I agree, the boat-sinking strategy gives one a certain satisfying money-wrench feeling, even if it doesn’t seem to work very well. Hayduke Lives!

    • Steve Gaines says:

      Wrong metaphor. Everyone values whales, just in different ways. The point of this approach is to use the fact that you (and most of the people on the planet) value live whales more than whalers value them dead. How do you best take advantage of this difference to achieve your goal of no whaling. Your investment in ramming and other strategies has clearly not worked. The same investment in a whale market would lead to far fewer whales being hunted. More importantly, there would be far more money put on the whale conservation side, if people knew with certainty that their investment actually would lead to whaling ending forever.

      • ECO says:

        Ramming ships is currently working wonders! Far better than anything previous. I think you don’t understand cap and trade. The offenders buy the ability to harvest in excess. You cannot fish your way out of the fact that the oceans are 90% depleted of fish. When did paying ransom produce less Ransomholders? Don’t play dumb!

        Furthermore, Industry serves to deplete the land and water of biodiversity and resources at a rate much faster than produced (if being reproduced at all) and as such is unsustainable. Depleting the land and water of biodiversity is the same as breeding disease and pestilance.

        We will not drive Toyota Priusout of this catastrophe.

      • ECO says:

        The people doing the whaling have to be paid not to whale ipso facto you are paying ransom for whales to live. When did paying ransom prevent more kidnapping? That’s like paying oil companies not to produce gas. Don’t play dumb!

        Industry serves to deplete the earth of “resources” faster than they are reproduced if they are being reproduced which is by definition unsustainable!

  2. [...] And no, none of them are about whale trading, which has been covered far better by others in the blue blogosphere.  Instead, these stories involve sea creatures that actually breathe water and the [...]

  3. Les Stuff says:

    Environmentalists fight as hard as we can to protect the places we love, using the tools of the system the best that we can. Yet we do not do the most important thing of all: we do not question the existence of this death culture. We do not question the existence of an economic and social system that is working the world to death, that is starving it to death, that is imprisoning it, that is torturing it. We never question the logic that leads inevitably to clearcuts, murdered oceans, loss of topsoil, dammed rivers, poisoned aquifers.

    When most people ask, “How can we stop global warming?” they aren’t really asking what they pretend they’re asking. They are instead asking, “How can we stop global warming without stopping the burning of oil and gas, without stopping the industrial infrastructure, without stopping this omnicidal system?” The answer: you can’t.

    Ninety percent of the large fish in the oceans are already gone. Where is your threshold for resistance? Is it 91 percent? 92? 93? 94? Would you wait till they had killed off 95 percent? 96? 97? 98? 99? How about 100 percent? Would you fight back then?

    If salmon could take on human manifestation, what would they do?

    What would we do if Nazis had invaded, and they were vacuuming the oceans, scalping native forests, damming every river, changing the climate, and putting carcinogens into every mother’s breast milk, and into the flesh of your children, your lover, your mother, into your own flesh? How much worse would the damage have to get?

  4. I’m in the camp that isn’t convinced there is a market for whaling to begin with (see today’s article saying Norwegian authorities are worried about a decline in whaling vessels from 33 to 19:

    If you set up a market, isn’t that potentially a subsidy? (Ex. I pay you not to use your whaling vessel to whale this = latent capacity potentially available next year. You can’t afford to whale = you sell your boat for scrap, problem solved.)

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