Save the whales … with ‘cap and trade’

Three humpback whales surrounded by birds in NOAA's Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. PHOTO COURTESY NOAA.

Economics, marine science professors team up to offer a market-based solution to whale conservation

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — A marine science professor and an economist from California say a market-based approach to whale conservation could help sustain populations of the cetaceans and also help whalers who make their living from killing the  marine mammals.

Anti-whaling groups like Greenpeace, Sea Shepherd, and the World Wildlife Fund spend at least $25 million per years on a variety of activities intended to end commercial whaling, yet every year, commercial whaling not only continues, but grows.

Instead of spending that money on anti-whaling activities, the groups could use the money on an open whale conservation market to purchase a share of the quotas, thus saving whales directly.

Under the current, largely unregulated system, the number of whales harvested annually has doubled since the early 1990s, to about two thousand per year and many populations of large whales have been severely depleted and continue to be threatened by commercial whaling.

While protests, education, lobbying and dangerous confrontations on the high seas have saved some whales, the whaling industry shows no sign of shutting down – or slowing down.

But economics professor Christopher Costello and marine scientist Steve Gaines, both with the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Leah Gerber, a population ecologist and marine conservation biologist at Arizona State University, have proposed a cap and trade solution similar to the schemes used to reduce air pollution from industrial sources.

“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,” the authors write.

The idea has its roots in trading markets for such air pollutants as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which have reduced pollutants more and at a lower cost in the U.S. than resulted from traditional regulatory policy. A similar concept is also used for wetlands conservation and other fishery management programs in New Zealand, Iceland, and Canada, which use individual transferable quotas.

The concept of auctioning off annual whale-catch quotas was suggested as early as 1982 but was never implemented, perhaps, according to the researchers, because whalers would have had to purchase something they had always received for free.

But the proposed whale conservation market would be different, with allocated whale shares distributed in sustainable numbers to all members of the International Whaling Commission.

Recipients could  exercise them by harvesting their quota, holding onto them for a year, or permanently retire them. The shares would be tradable in a carefully controlled global market.

In the two most extreme scenarios, whalers could end up purchasing all the shares and harvesting whales at the established sustainable level, or conservationists might purchase all the shares, so that no whales would be harvested.

“Because conservationists could bid for quotas, whalers could profit from them even without harvesting the animals,” the professors said. And while they concede that “there are multiple challenges in getting such a scheme to work, including agreeing on sustainable quotas and on how shares should be allocated,” they do not see those obstacles as insurmountable.

But would whalers settle for quotas?

In fact, the authors said, whaling nations have previously proposed quotas, which would legitimize their harvest. Many anti-whaling groups, on the other hand, have had a fundamental problem with setting quotas for the same reason, feeling that quotas would appear to legitimize commercial whaling.

“If quotas are set properly,” the authors suggested, “transactions would reduce the number of whales harvested, quite possibly to zero, unlike existing protocols, which seem to be increasing the catches.”

“The fervent anti-whaler will be quick to argue you cannot and should not put a price on the life of a whale; a species should be protected irrespective of its economic value. But unless all nations can be convinced or forced to adopt this view, whaling will continue. It is precisely because of the lack of a real price tag in the face of different values that anti-whaling operations have had such limited success … 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.”


2 thoughts on “Save the whales … with ‘cap and trade’

  1. On the same day that the Japanese media are questioning the practice of whaling, it seems that it is people outside of Japan that want to find some ‘solution’ that would help them continue.

    My first impression on reading the Nature article was ‘are we not discussing here the old arguments for paying protection monies’. I am afraid this rarely results in a satisfactory end for most involved.

    Much opposition to whaling is not about numbers but is down to ethical and welfare considerations and so for many countries and most of the public the move to the concept of property rights and their trade is unacceptable in the conservation and protection of whales and dolphins.

    And indeed where countries claim property rights over cetaceans, such as in the dolphin hunts in Japan, we see massively unsustainable hunts, which have increased in cruelty as populations have decreased.

    Additional market forces such as demand by dolphinaria for drive hunt dolphins have seen the continuation of hunts, which had previously significantly decreased as local demand has decreased.

    It should be remembered that it’s currently illegal to allocate quotas to individuals or even countries and this model would require the rewriting of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling and the United Nations Law of the Sea, that both prohibit and mitigate against the privatization of whales and dolphins. Indeed, UNCLOS, marks cetaceans out as special amongst all marine species and allows for states to enact stricter provisions for their protection.

    The capital costs and current moratorium currently keep many countries and operations out of whaling, but countries such as China and South Korea have all indicated that they would enter whaling if quotas were allocated.

    I suspect we would see many more countries applying for quotas and then existing whaling enterprises would not hesitate to ‘lend’ hunting equipment and expertise to allow for such growth in artificial ‘demand’.

    The property rights model would move cetaceans from being under the stewardship of all nations to be the property of whoever has the ability to access them lethally or the money to ‘put off their deaths’. The privatization model excludes many developing countries from having a say in the protection of whales. Just because they are not rich and cannot afford to ‘buy whale shares’, but they do not wish to see whales exploited, – should not mean that these countries are squeezed out of having a say in their protection

    If we examine fishery quotas they are often subject to political wrangling which only sees their escalation. In the history of marine exploitation this is usually directly proportional to the number of profit taking interests involved. The more countries and companies that have a financial interest in whaling would mean that, just like fisheries, quotas would be subject to being driven up as well as prices.

    All attempts to regulate whaling have led to a ‘race to the bottom’. The mining of the world’s whale populations in the last two centuries will not suddenly become sustainable because the last collective responsibilities we have for our oceans have been thrown out to the freedom of the market.

    It’s time to realize that mankind is pretty rubbish at managing itself when it comes to these creatures.

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