The media is running with a discussion over a proposal to resolve the whaling conflict by introducing a tradable quota for whales. The proposal was published early this month by a team of economists and scientists from the Bren School in California in the international journal Nature.

The idea is that scientists set an annual sustainable catch for whales to be bought at auction. Those who want to protect whales then have to buy this quota from those who want to hunt them, and maintain its annual levies — forever.

In effect it is taxing those who want to protect whales to manage them, and pay companies and others with rights to kill whales not to.  This creates an economic incentive for whalers to increase their annual kill to get either more quota allocated or more “annual compensation” to profit if such a quota is introduced. It also creates an immoral penalty with whales in effect being killed when those who want to preserve them fail to raise the cash to buy or maintain levies on quota.

Already this is attracting naive support from some conservation organisations:

“… The authors have put forth some bold, fresh thinking aimed at a barbaric practice that has become an intractable problem,” said the Nature Conservancy California executive director Mike Sweeney.”

The problem of “scientific whaling” in a whale sanctuary has been re-described as a threat to whales as a  species.  The plight of whales is exaggerated too:

“… every year, commercial whaling not only continues, but grows. Under the current, largely unregulated system, the number of whales harvested annually has doubled since the early 1990s, to about 2000 per year. Further, many populations of large whales have been severely depleted and continue to be threatened by commercial whaling.”

No mention of hunting whales in a whale sanctuary, which a significant portion of the Southern Ocean’s whales use — or the threats to whales by oil and gas industries.

Whaling worldwide has been all but stopped because all but a few species have increasing populations. The humpback whale is an example of a now-protected whale species with a rapidly growing local population matching an increase recorded internationally.

The costs of quota management for whales would be high and uncapped. They would annually have to cover stock assessments for each species, enforcement over huge areas and a bureaucracy to manage the allocation of trade in quota.

Like with fisheries under quota, the flesh will have to be weighed at whatever wharf it is landed on and recorded and it will extremely expensive to track all flesh landed to determine whether it is legal or illegal. The authors of this proposal, disturbingly, believe they have some idea of what people are prepared to “pay to save whales”:

“Every year, a group of anti-whaling non-profit organisations that includes Greenpeace, Sea Shepherd, and the World Wildlife Fund spend, by conservative estimates, some $25 million on a variety of activities intended to end commercial whaling.”

In Nature, accompanying the original paper, there is also an article “Whales for Sale”, in which the proposed privatisation of whales for trade under quota is more clearly stated:

“… they (referring to the authors of the published article) use the per-animal profit of whaling ships to decide that about $US13,000 would be a fair price to buy the life of a minke whale, and $85,000 should secure a fin whale. ‘Whale prices should therefore be within reach of conservation groups and even some individuals,’ they suggest.”

Pay-up or the whales will be killed?

There is also a perverse market impact with a whale quota — the more scarce whales become, the more valuable the total fishery is. This is based on simple supply-and-demand theory, which shows that the price will increase by more than the losses from less catch landed.

The proposed quota management for the world’s waters for whales misses the point. The current conflict is not just about the catch of whales but where they are being caught. The fact that the Japanese whalers operate in Antarctic waters in a whale sanctuary area declared by international agreement is the issue in Antarctica. The IWC allows the thin “excuse” that the killing of 500 whales annually is for “scientific purposes” — in a whale sanctuary.

This is the key reason behind the widespread public support for Sea Shepherd protest, yet other authors have wrongly described this as the very conflict that the introduction of a quota for whales is said to address. Is a quota for whales a “solution looking for a problem”?

If Japanese whaling was restricted to Japanese territorial waters, they would have an economic incentive to look after their own whales and manage their own marine environment — a more credible “scientific” challenge.

There is little international conflict with Norwegian, Icelandic or indigenous whaling communities because they do it in principally in their own waters — not in a sanctuary set up to protect a significant portion of the Southern Ocean’s whales that use it annually.