When it comes to commercial whaling, things are rarely as simple as they seem. The fact that it continues, 30 years after the International Whaling Commission (IWC) voted for an indefinite moratorium, suggests that there has been some kind of failure on the part of environmentalists and other opponents of whaling; yet the number of whales being killed by whalers today is a fraction of what it was three decades ago, and a barely noticeable blip when set against the size of the industry at its peak. And although the whaling nations’ self-assigned quotas may be higher than they were a few years ago, the actual catches fall some way short of those quotas.
The one area that has become an article of faith to many observers and participants alike is that the IWC, deadlocked between pro-whaling and non-whaling nations, has descended into dysfunction and an inability to chart a way to a final resolution. But three scientists from the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB) and Arizona State University are convinced they have a solution. Writing in the journal Nature last week, Christopher Costello, Steven Gaines and Leah Gerber proposed “an alternative path forward that could break the deadlock: quotas that can be bought and sold, creating a market that would be economically, ecologically and socially viable for whalers and whales alike. Because conservationists could bid for quotas, whalers could profit from whales even without harvesting the animals.”
As an intellectual exercise, the paper is interesting. As a genuinely good-faith effort to seek a path through the evident quagmire within the IWC it deserves plaudits. As a practical proposal rooted in reality and an awareness of the issues involved in the current whaling debate, however, it misses the mark by a country mile.
To be sure, Costello, Gerber and Gaines anticipate that whale-huggers like me, and pro-whalers for that matter, would have objections to their idea; but their anticipation of the arguments is also misplaced. They write that, for example, a “fervent anti-whaler will be quick to argue that you cannot and should not put a price on the life of a whale; a species should be protected irrespective of its economic value.” True, that is certainly one objection. There are other philosophical and ethical concerns.
More significant, however, is the cavalier way in which the authors attempt to patch up the holes in their idea. Acknowledging that there are “multiple challenges”, including agreeing catch levels, divvying up the shares, establishing an observer scheme on whaling vessels and ensuring a carefully monitored trading system, they state their belief that “the IWC is up to the task.”
Really? Based on what? Such supposedly small details – for example, the need for a DNA registry of whale meat, and observer schemes – are the very things that have tied the IWC in knots for years and have helped foster the stalemate in which it finds itself. After the IWC agreed in principle to a Revised Management Procedure (RMP) that, among other things, would determine any future catch limits, it set to work on a broader Revised Management Scheme (RMS), which included operational issues such as observers and databases. Discussions foundered and ultimately failed, and there is absolutely no reason whatsoever to believe that the creation of a whale-trading scheme would cause them to be resuscitated and successful.
“My first reaction is that the professors probably should get out a bit more,” Patrick Ramage, Global Whale Program Director at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), said when we spoke between sessions of a meeting on whales and whaling in Reykjavik last week. “Advancing this concept in a B-school bull session might make for stimulating intellectual gymnastics, but it’d be dead on arrival in the real-world parry and thrust of the 'whale wars' inside the IWC and out. New approaches are needed, but breathing new life and economic value into this rapidly dying industry is a breathtakingly dumb idea."
The fundamental problem is that the authors miss the heart of the issue. As Steiner Andresen of Norway’s Fridtjof Nansen Institute observed, it “is a rational academic approach to something that is not at all rational.” There is no point introducing a market-based system to something for which there is no market. Japan is stockpiling much of the meat it brings back from the Antarctic; Norway can rarely complete its quota because the domestic whalemeat market swiftly becomes saturated; and in Iceland, increased whale hunting has led to a growth in restaurants offering whale meat to tourists, not Icelanders. Commercial whaling continues only with government subsidies and largely because of vestigial yet powerful domestic constituencies that are not so much pro-whaling as they are anti-anti-whaling.
For all their protests about the existence of the moratorium, the remaining whaling nations aren’t in any great hurry to resume sanctioned commercial whaling if it requires future catch limits and strict observers and databases – or, indeed, if they have to outbid environmentalists and other nations for the right to hunt whales. They basically have what they want: Because they utilize loopholes such as conducting openly commercial whaling under an objection to the moratorium, or because they deem their whaling to be 'scientific research', they can set the quotas they desire. And when they fail to meet those quotas, they blame that failure on external forces such as Sea Shepherd, rather than on the fact that the people whose inalienable right to eat whale meat they purportedly are defending don’t really want to eat that meat at all.
That is one reason why, for example, the whalers, as much as the more fundamentalist environmentalists, scuppered a proposed deal advanced by the government of Ireland within the IWC in 1997 and for several years thereafter, a deal that would have made whaling legal but significantly more restricted under the rules proposed. The Nature authors don’t mention that proposal, but do cite a US-backed attempted compromise that broke down in 2011 as evidence that “many anti-whaling groups had a fundamental problem with setting quotas at all, because they felt that these would appear to legitimize commercial whaling.” While that was certainly the motivation of some opponents, the opposition from others was more practical, focused on the fact that it was offering the whalers a much better deal than did the 1997 proposal, at a time when their hand – with declining domestic interest in whaling and whale meat – was weaker.
Indeed, there are those who insist, not that the IWC is in need of fundamental fixing, but simply that certain players within the Commission are rigging the game. "A dwindling minority of fisheries bureaucrats and die-hard whalers in Japan, Iceland and Norway want to keep killing whales, and they’re willing to kill the Whaling Commission to do it," asserted Ramage. In this vein, no step is likely to be more effective at breaking the stalemate than a seemingly simple and insignificant element of a UK-led package on transparency and effectiveness that the Commission adopted last year: a requirement that the dues of IWC member nations not be paid in cash. That will almost certainly lead to a reduction in the number of nations that appear at the IWC year-after-year to support Japan, their arrival met with hugs, handshakes and money to ensure their participation. A decline in the presence of such countries-for-hire should lead to a membership makeup within the IWC that better reflects the true balance between pro- and anti-whaling nations, and eliminate the major cause of the Commission's alleged dysfunction.
But the IWC is only a part of the story. A final end to commercial whaling will ultimately come, not solely in Commission meetings, but in Oslo, Tokyo, and Reykjavik, as rapidly decreasing interest in whale meat leads to similar disinterest in, and ultimately disapproval of, supporting a dying industry, particularly with taxpayer dollars during a global recession. It is that kind of market-based solution, not the one advocated by Costello, Gerber and Gaines, that is more likely ultimately to bring the whaling issue to a conclusion.
Photograph of idle whaling ships in Reykjavik harbor by Borkur Sigurbjornsson, via Wikimedia Commons
Illustration of the White Whale by A. Burnham Shute for Moby Dick by Herman Melville. (Corbis)
Whale Meat For Sale in Fish Market. (Corbis)