Market proposed to end feud over whale hunting

Hoping to defuse a three-decade feud over whale hunting, three academics are making an audacious proposal: The world should put a price on killing whales and allow conservationists and whalers alike to bid on the right to take them.

Calling it “a market that would be economically, ecologically and socially viable for whalers and whales alike,” an economist and two marine scientists suggested in a commentary published Wednesday by the journal Nature that the International Whaling Commission (IWC) could allocate catch quotas between whaling and anti-whaling nations while holding some back for an open auction.

The proposal is attracting interest from Obama administration officials as well as some environmentalists, who have become frustrated by the ongoing impasse over how to enforce a global whaling moratorium rejected by Japan, Iceland and Norway.

Over the past three years, nearly 2,000 whales on average have been killed annually by Japan, Iceland and Norway, along with aboriginal groups in Denmark, Russia and the United States. That’s more than double the yearly toll in the 1990s.

Both the Obama and the George W. Bush administrations sought to forge a global deal that would have allowed whaling nations to hunt whales legally as long as they curbed their catch. Japan takes about 1,000 whales a year for “scientific purposes,” while Norway and Iceland take about 600 annually between them.

But those efforts floundered in 2010, leaving conservationists and whale hunters still divided on how to regulate whaling.

Christopher Costello, the paper’s lead author, called the current system “totally ineffective” because “everyone thinks they either have a right to whale or let whales live.”

“Somehow you have to come up with a way to allocate whales between those two visions,” said Costello, a professor of natural resource economics at the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “The one thing we’re pretty darn sure of is this program will reduce the number of whales killed, and the whalers will voluntary opt into the program. Both sides have something to gain, and fewer whales will be killed.”

Under the “whale-conservation market” outlined by Costello and his two co-authors, Bren School Dean Steven Gaines and Arizona State University ecologist Leah R. Gerber, all IWC members would receive allowances to hunt whales at “sustainable harvest levels” and have the option of harvesting their quotas, holding on to them for a year or permanently retiring them. Some shares would be auctioned off, with the proceeds going to conservation efforts, and all allowances would be tradeable in a global market.

Robert N. Stavins, director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, said the researchers are proposing the same sort of catch share system that has been used successfully in some U.S. fisheries as well as many overseas.

If the world could devise a way to monitor and enforce these whaling quotas, Stavins wrote in an e-mail, it could help keep whale hunting in check. “The problem is not economic or biological, but political.”

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Juliet Eilperin covers the environment for The Washington Post, reporting on areas including climate change, oceans, and air quality. In pursuit of these stories she has gone scuba diving with sharks in the Bahamas, trekking on the Arctic tundra, and searching on her hands and knees for rare insects in the caves of Tennessee.
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