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Economists Want to Save The Whales

August 27, 2013

“Quotas? I don’t want your stinking quotas!”

By setting legal catch quotas:

study of 11,135 fisheries showed that introducing catch share roughly halved the chance of collapse. The system caught on in the 1980s and 1990s after decades of other well-intentioned efforts failed. Economist H. Scott Gordon is usually credited with laying out the problem and the solution in 1954.

Modern environmental economists accuse their predecessors of forgetting about incentives. Catch-share schemes issue permits to individuals and groups to fish some portion of the grounds or keep some fraction of the total catch. If fishermen exceed their share, they can buy extra rights from others, pay a hefty fine or even lose their fishing rights, depending on theparticular arrangement. The system works because it aligns the interests of individual fishermen with the sustainability of the entire fishery. Everybody rises and falls with the fate of the total catch, eliminating destructive rivalries among fishermen.

Environmental economists have lately turned their attention to Atlantic bluefin tuna and whales. The National Marine Fisheries Service has just proposed new regulations that would for the first time establish a catch-share program for the endangered and lucrative bluefin. And a group of economists is pushing for a new international agreement on whaling.

In both cases the problem is overfishing. The bluefin tuna population has dropped by a third in the Atlantic Ocean and by an incredible 96 percent in the Pacific. And whaling, which is supposedly subject to strict international rules that ban commercial fishing and regulate scientific work, is making a sad comeback. The total worldwide annual catch has risen more than fivefold over the last 20 years.

Ben Minteer, Leah Gerber, Christopher Costello and Steven Gaines have called for a new and properly regulated market in whales. Set a sustainable worldwide quota, they say, and allow fishermen, scientists and conservationists alike to bid for catch rights. Then watch the system that saved other fish species set whaling right.

The idea outrages many environmentalists. Putting a price on whales, they argue, moves even further away from conservationist principles than the current ban, however ineffective. They’re wrong. “The arguments that whales should not be hunted, whatever their merits, have not been winning where it counts — that is, as measured by the size of the whale population,”says economist Timothy Taylor, editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives.

This is logical in economic terms. But it is utilitarianism divorced from morality, and fails on moral terms. Economists could also reduce the overall rate of child kidnapping, or murder, with catch, or kill, shares. But societies are not prepared to sanction kidnapping or murder, because kidnapping and murder are morally repugnant. So is slaughtering sentient, intelligent, whales without true need (we could argue about whether hunting and killing bluefin tuna is morally repugnant, as well, but let’s leave that aside for the moment).

The goal, as with kidnapping and murder, needs to continue to be to eradicate the act itself–not to legalize and sanction the act in return for some reduced rate of violence and death.

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