Researchers Propose 'Cap-and-Trade' System For Saving Whales
January 12, 2012

Researchers Propose ‘Cap-and-Trade’ System For Saving Whales

There are few, if any, animal species that receive as much persistent and impassioned attention from both environmental groups and the media as whales do. And yet despite global agreements that more or less ban the practice of whaling, many are concerned populations of the world´s largest  mammals are still alarmingly low, making them vulnerable to the handful of whaling practices that have managed to legally survive.

Three American researchers have just published a novel and controversial proposal for addressing this issue that is already stirring up a lot of dust in the world of whale conservation.

In an article titled “Conversation Science: A market approach to saving the whales” that´s scheduled to appear in Friday´s edition of the journal Nature, scientists Christopher Costello and Steven Gaines of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Leah Gerber of Arizona State University have sketched out a “cap-and-trade” plan that would use market mechanisms to save whales.

In their proposal, countries would be allotted a certain number of permits that would allow them to harvest a specified number of whales. These permits could then be bought and traded, ultimately allowing whale conservation groups in various countries to raise money and purchase these permits from other countries.

According to the plan, the permits would be issued, managed and monitored by the International Whaling Commission, and the number of permits allocated would be capped at a level that would ensure the sustainable proliferation of vulnerable whale populations.

“I´m convinced it would work,” says Costello, adding that his team´s plan has generally received a warm welcome from both the whaling industry and environmental groups alike.

The plan represents an attempt to alleviate the intense frictions between whalers and conservation groups that have reached unprecedented levels in recent years. The core idea behind the plan recognizes that the two groups have divergent, opposing interests in terms of whaling, and attempts to peacefully harmonize these interests using an economic approach.

Each year whale conservation groups spend millions of dollars in their efforts to protect the massive marine mammals. Much of this money goes to public campaigning and political lobbying, but an increasing amount has been going to direct intervention in recent years, with organizations like Sea Shepherd investing untold sums in sea vessels and high-tech monitoring equipment for tracking and harassing whalers.

But the researcher trio says that the struggle between whalers and conservationists doesn´t have to be a zero-sums game. They´ve estimated that the whaling industry averages a little over $30 million a year in profits. Meanwhile, whale conservation groups dish out some $25 million a year on campaign efforts alone. Once viewed in this light, the solution to the problem almost seems to be staring us in the face.

Costello and his colleagues argue that that large investment by the whale-conservation community would, in economic terms, render much larger dividends if they instead used it to buy permits from whalers rather than to campaign against them.

According to the team´s calculations, the average price of a whale would likely range anywhere from $13,000 for a minke whale to $85,000 for a fin whale.

Not everyone, however, thinks that the plan would work so flawlessly. Dr. Martin Smith, an environmental economist at Duke University, suspects that the plan would likely produce a number of undesirable side effects.

One of the most critical of these unintended consequences, Smith explains, would likely be an enlarged black market. If fewer whales are being killed because conservation groups are buying up permits for them, the market price for whale products will rise due to scarcity. And as with all forms of economic prohibition, the result would be to stimulate illegal whaling and black market sales in order to satisfy the existing demand for whale meat.

This hole in their plan, however, is not one that the researchers hadn´t thought of. Costello concedes that the plan “needs to be thought though clearly” before being implemented.

Yet while the team acknowledged that policing the black market for whale meat would be difficult, they do not think that it would be impossible.

Significantly, one of the world´s largest environmental organizations Greenpeace has rejected the proposal as a matter of principle.

“The whole idea of a resumption of commercial whaling is abhorrent,” said the organization´s oceans campaign director Phil Kline.

For years the organization´s strategy has been to eliminate the practice of whaling entirely. This has been a difficult sell to countries like Japan and Iceland where whaling has deep cultural and economic roots.


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