Saving Whales by Putting a Price on Their Tail?

Scientists suggest that tradable harvest quotas may reduce the slaughter of whales.
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For decades, whalers and those opposed to whaling have been locked in a pitched battle over the fate of the world’s largest mammals, many species of which are threatened or endangered.

Anti-whaling groups, including Greenpeace, Sea Shepherd, and the World Wildlife Fund, spend some $25 million every year on efforts ranging from education to dangerous confrontations on the high seas to stop whaling. Yet, the number of whales killed each year continues to grow, having doubled since the early 1990s, according to International Whaling Commission figures.

As a staff writer at the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara, I heard about an article released today in the latest issue of Nature suggesting an intriguing — and sure to be controversial — new way forward.

In “A market approach to saving the whales,” Bren School economist Christopher Costello and marine scientist Steve Gaines join Leah Gerber, a population ecologist and marine conservation biologist at Arizona State University, to suggest a market-based solution to saving whales.

They propose establishing a quota system for harvesting whales in which shares (the right to harvest) could be bought and sold, “creating a market that would be economically, ecologically, and socially viable for whalers and whales alike.”

The strategy has its roots in market-based approaches that have been effective in conserving land and reducing air pollution. Costello, Gaines, and UCSB economist John Lynham three years ago suggested using a similar system, “catch shares,” to prevent the collapse of valuable but teetering fisheries. That approach has received its share of flak, which a “whale shares” system would likely inherit.

This latest suggestion involves allocating “whale shares” in sustainable numbers to all members of the IWC, which includes both whaling and non-whaling nations. Recipients could then harvest their quota, hold onto their shares for a year, or permanently retire them. Trading of shares would occur 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 even without harvesting the animals,” the professors say, adding that anti-whaling groups would probably end up spending less to save a whale than they do now.

But would whalers settle for quotas? Whaling nations have previously proposed them, which would legitimize their harvest. Many anti-whaling groups, on the other hand, have opposed quotas for the same reason.

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

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