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Is Whale Wars a waste of money?

Portobello Road

Lindsey Peavey is  a PhD student in the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara.  She is a marine ecologist whose research seeks to find a sustainable balance between human resource use and species conservation.  You can follow her work on Twitter (@lepeavey) and her blog, turtlesinthedeep.org.

Last December, I sat down to enjoy a pizza pie and draft beer with my friend Neal, a 6-foot, 5-inch, 280-lb. (think offensive lineman), die-hard conservative republican. He was giddy with excitement to talk with me about one of his favorite TV shows, Animal Planet’s “Whale Wars.” Knowing that I’m a tree hugger by nature and a marine biologist by trade, he thought an hour of “Save the whales!” camaraderie was ahead. He was shocked when I let out a long sigh and confessed, “I’m not a fan of Whale Wars.”

Neal was completely deflated. He demanded to know why I didn’t like the show. Shouldn’t I, of all people, be Sea Shepherd’s No. 1 fan? I offered my gripes: It’s outrageously expensive to operate a vessel like Sea Shepherd’s SSS Steve Irwin in the extremely volatile and dangerous environment of intercepting Japanese whaling vessels in the Antarctic — on the order of tens of thousands of dollars a day. Although funds are available to support these operations, the return on investment is unclear. How many whales are actually being saved?

Do anti-whaling supporters think about their donations in terms of the actual number of individual whales saved per dollar spent?  If the answer is no, why not?  The business of whaling is necessarily framed by the number of whales caught per amount of effort spent to hunt whales.  Perhaps those in the business of saving whales should borrow this way of thinking.

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) recently met in Korea to discuss the status of whale populations worldwide.  The agenda showed that the plan is to continue with status quo management using a voluntary moratorium, controversial scientific permits, and unenforceable whale sanctuaries.  These management approaches have proven difficult to implement and propagate inefficient spending all around.  Simply put, they aren’t working.

Decades of global whale population declines compel people to fight for whale protection, or harvest.  Various values fuel our affection for whales — cultural, economic, spiritual, intrinsic, and ecological.  And these values are quantifiable, in a way, through the money spent to oppose or propel whaling.

Demand for whale meat is waning, and commercial whaling is a dying industry.  We’ve seen this unfolding for years — Carl Safina wrote a provocative blog about this issue in Feb. 2011 that I encourage you to read.  This past February, the International Fund for Animal Welfare released an economic report that revealed the “true cost of Japanese whaling.”  One of the more alarming statistics is that the Japanese government subsidizes its country’s whaling activities to prop the fishery, estimated at over $28 million dollars in 2011.

But that’s only half of the economic story.

Anti-whaling organizations spend just as much (of perhaps your money) to oppose whaling.  In 2011, non-governmental organizations spent a conservative estimate of $30 million on anti-whaling activities.  Additionally, Australia alone has invested over $20 million challenging Japanese whaling at the International Court of Justice.  But it’s hard to come up with an actual number of individual whales that benefited from throwing money at this problem.

Environmental problems are often discussed in terms of “winners” and “losers.”  Because the two opposing poles of the whaling issue are at an economic stalemate, it is difficult to identify any winners in international whaling, most especially the whales themselves.  This is disheartening.  It’s time the IWC starts thinking outside of the box for ways to end the current lose-lose situation.

For instance, market-based solutions have been proposed as one potential way forward (e.g., A market approach to saving whales in Nature).  Not just for whales, but for other endangered species in crisis as well; for example the African rhino.

In short, this might consist of systematically dividing up the resource (e.g., the Southern fin whale population) among all stakeholders into tradable shares that can be bought and sold according to a price determined by the market (not fundraising campaigns, subsidies, or costly legal battles).  For whales, this would allow both pro- and anti-whaling entities the opportunity to purchase (read: consume –OR– save, respectively) individual whales in a regulated, efficient market.  And unlike the outcome of the tens of millions of dollars currently spent, it would enable the industry to tank if demand is no longer there.

Given the substantial amount of recent intellectual ammunition expended exploring creative ways to solve this multi-faceted problem, I am surprised that alternative solutions, like legal whale trade, were left off the IWC floor.  I urge the IWC to explain how their management approaches are evolving to save whales, and money.  Although whaling wars make for entertaining TV, they are a waste of money and save few whales.  Neal now watches the dramatic confrontations of the high seas through a different lens and thinks more practically about the return his investment.  We finally agree on this: we can do better.