The International Whaling Commission imposed a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986, which is still in effect. However, the moratorium has effectively allowed "scientific" whaling (mainly Japan), "subsistence" whaling (various aboriginal groups), and limited commercial whaling (mainly by Norway and Iceland). The total number of whales caught has doubled since the 1990s to about 2,000 per year, which is a pace that many biologists consider to be unsustainably high. After watching the moratorium approach struggle and fail over the last quarter-century, it's time to think about alternatives. In the Spring 2013 edition of Issues in Science and Technology, Ben A. Minteer and Leah R. Gerber discuss the possibility of "Buying Whales to Save Them."
What Minteer and Gerber have in mind is that the International Whaling Commission or some similar body would set a quota for the number of whales that could be taken, based on estimates of sustainable catch from biologists. These quotas would be marketable; in particular, environmentalist groups could purchase the right to take a whale--but then not do so. As they describe it:
"Under this plan, quotas for hunting of whales would be traded in global markets. But again, and unlike most “catch share” programs in fisheries, the whale conservation market would not restrict participation in the market; both pro- and antiwhaling interests could own and trade quotas. The maximum potential harvest for any hunted species in any given year would be established in a conservative manner that ensures sustainability of the marketed species (that is, harvest levels would be established that would not permit taking more individuals than can be replaced) and maintains their functional roles in the ecosystem. The actual harvest, however, would depend on who owns the quotas. Conservation groups, for example, could choose to buy whale shares in order to protect populations that are currently threatened; they could also buy shares to protect populations that are not presently at risk but that conservationists fear might become threatened in the future."
As you might expect, this kind of proposals is controversial. Many environmentalists feel that putting a value on whales is unethical, a betrayal of the underlying values involved. Other environmentalists, especially those with an economic turn of mind, note that if those who would be catching whales sell their quota to those who do not wish to catch whales, both parties can be benefit from the exchange--and the result may be that fewer whales are killed. Much of Minteer and Gerber's article is a consideration of these issues. Here's a sample:
"Despite the widely acknowledged failure of the IWC [International Whaling Commission] moratorium to curtail unsustainable whaling, the whale conservation market idea has proved to be wildly controversial within conservation and antiwhaling circles. Concerns have been raised about how the system would be established (for example, under what guidelines would the original shares be allocated?) and how it would play out over time (for example, would a legal market lead to increased whaling?). Many critics of the idea are also plainly not comfortable with the ethics of putting a price on such iconic species—that is, with using contingent market methods for what they believe should be a categorical ethical obligation to preserve whales. On the other hand, the negotiation failures surrounding the global management of whales underscore the need for a realistic and pragmatic discussion about available policy alternatives. Indeed, the vulnerable status of many whale populations and the failure of the traditional regulatory response to halt unsustainable harvests call for a more innovative and experimental approach to whale policy, including considering unconventional proposals, such as the whale conservation market."My own sense, trained as I am into economic ways of thinking, is that if ethics are to be meaningful, they need to engage with pragmatic realities. The moratorium on commercial whaling is not, in fact, protecting a biologically sufficient number of whales. 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. Arguments about the ethics whaling have even not brought us to a biologically sustainable situation, much less to the far more stringent limits on whaling that many environmentalists would prefer. In that situation, real-world ethical behavior calls for looking at alternatives.