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A Market Solution For Saving Whales?

January 12, 2012

Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd confrontations with whaling fleets make for good television. But despite their efforts lots of whales still die every year (some 2000, in fact).

A minke whale is processed in Hvalskurður, Iceland. (Via WIRED. Photo: Dagur Brynjólfsson/Flickr

Environmental economists Christopher Costello, Steve Gaines, and Leah Berger think that market incentives might be a better way to reduce the numbers of whales killed every year. Writing in the January 11 issue of NATURE, they propose the equivalent of a cap and trade system for whales, which would allow conservationists to spend money on purchasing whale shares (and saving the lives of whales) in stead of spending money on chasing whaling fleets around the world’s oceans.

Here’s how WIRED describes the plan:

The proposed market would be patterned after a system known best known from fisheries management as catch shares: Sustainable harvest levels are quantified, a maximum quota established, and catch allotments put up for sale by the International Whaling Commission. Costello’s proposal would add the crucial wrinkle of allowing activists to buy shares, too. If they did, a corresponding number of whales would be removed from the quota. (Indigenous groups would receive a set number of shares to be owned in perpetuity, apart from the market — though those could conceivably be sold, too.)

According to Costello’s estimates, global whaling profits amount to $31 million, and likely less when government subsidies are removed. Mainstream anti-whaling groups — Greenpeace, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, and the World Wildlife Fund — spend about $25 million to fight the hunts.

“This money could be used to purchase whales, arguably with the same or better effect,” write the researchers in Nature.

There is pushback over the idea that whales would continue to be treated as commodities to buy and sell, instead of exempted from human harvest because they are intelligent, social creatures.

But until humanity achieves a more enlightened and ethical understanding of the relationship between humankind and the other species on Earth–and can agree to leave whales alone–it makes sense to try any approach that actually reduces whale kills. Right now, money is what motivates mankind, so it’s an intriguing proposal.

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