Want to save the whales? Put a price on them says ASU professor

Photo by: Leah Gerber
Photo by: Leah Gerber

Overharvest by commercial whaling has been a well-recognized world threat to stable whale populations since the International Whaling Commission (IWC) issued a moratorium against commercial whaling in 1986. However, because of loopholes, whaling countries at odds with the ban continue to hunt under the guise of scientific whaling or in outright objection to the IWC, while the IWC and its members, as well as whale conservationists, can offer few methods to enforce the ban or effectively curb whale harvests.

This lack of cooperation and constructive communication among whalers, the IWC and conservationists has posed a decade’s old roadblock to solution building and balancing whaling practices with stabilization of whale populations.

One recently proposed solution is the creation of “whale shares,” an approach developed by Leah Gerber, a professor in Arizona State University’s School of Life Sciences, and colleagues from the University of California, Santa Barbara, is published as a forum in the January issue of Ecological Applications.

What is a whale share?

What is a whale share? “If you want to save a whale, buy a ‘whale share’ to save the whale from harvesting,” Gerber said. First proposed in 2012 by Gerber and her colleagues, this would allow governments or non-governmental organizations to trade the rights to individual whales, creating what’s called a conservation market. Conservationists would then be able to reduce the amount of whales harvest by buying more shares from the whalers, and if whalers want to harvest more they must to spend more.

Gerber’s new article offers substantive biological and economic details on how such an approach would work for three whale stocks. “Given the fragile state of the International Whaling Commission, our approach offers a possible way forward in effective global management of whales,” noted Gerber.

A conservation market operates on a few assumptions, based on data from the stocks of whaling companies and the amount of money anti-whaling organizations spend to advocate for conservation.

On one hand, the demand for whales decreases as the amount of harvested whales increases, since a greater supply results in less demand and financial gains for whalers. On the other, Gerber assumes that conservationists desire to protect whales also decreases the more the whale population grows – lessening concerns about endangerment or extinction.

Ultimately, a balancing point is attained where demands overlap, and an equilibrium is reached that sets the number of whales to be hunted. Once that number is calculated, Gerber explained, a regulating organization can cap the number of whales available for harvest and set prices for shares.

Then, as with all markets, conservationists and whaling organizations buy, sell and trade according to their interests. The following year, the cap and share prices are reassessed by the regulators and the trade starts over again. Gerber anticipates that this process will keep the population stable without damaging the whalers’ livelihoods.

According to the team’s research, this proposed solution benefits whales, whalers and conservationists because under this system a larger whale population offers the greatest gain for everyone. For whalers, a plentiful whale population drives the price of shares down, making it cheaper to harvest whales. And for conservationists and whales—the more whales there are the less concerns exist linked to whales’ extinction.

Potential drawbacks

Some disagree with the idea, though. As Ben Minteer, Arizona Zoological Society Chair in ASU’s School of Life Sciences, notes, both animal rights advocates and mainstream conservationists have objected to the whale shares proposal on ethical grounds, suggesting that market tools should not be used to assign societal value to whales.

“They raise serious and important concerns,” acknowledges Minteer, “and clearly the burden is on the advocates of the whale market idea to respond effectively to the worry that it will end up extinguishing the sense of duty to save whales for their own sake, and undermine conservation in the long run.”

Yet Minteer, an environmental ethicist, and Gerber believe that experimentation with new policy instruments like whale shares could be part of a responsible approach to a lingering conservation problem, and that this position doesn’t challenge the moral conviction that “whales matter” and should be protected.

“Conservation markets provide a mechanism to reduce total whale harvest,” Gerber suggests. Minteer and Gerber have recently produced work exploring the ethical and pragmatic aspects of the whale shares proposal.

Another concern about markets involves one or another group cornering the market by buying all the whale shares. Gerber’s forum article reports that such an occurrence would be problematic, but stresses that even a cornered market would be better than the present status quo.

After all, according to Gerber, a cornered market in favor of the whalers would still be limited by the harvest cap and a cornered market in favor of conservationists would still put millions of dollars in the pockets of whaling companies. Eventually, Gerber points out, the costs to maintain shares would rise and one side would likely have to relinquish their hold on the market.

The discussion also points out that creating a conservation market would make it easier to track and punish those conducting illegal whaling, lessen the amount of illegal whaling and promote more positive communication between whalers and conservationists.

Despite the potential drawbacks and remaining questions, Gerber insists that a conservation market is better than leaving the current, ineffective system in place. As for when such a market might be established, Gerber is unsure.

“I don’t anticipate any dramatic change in policy in the immediate future,” said Gerber, who hopes to present further ideas at next year’s IWC meeting. “These things take time. First we need to discuss this approach with various stakeholders to solicit input. Then we need to find the right time to introduce a policy change.”