Writing in the latest issue of "Nature," a trio of scientists — two of whom are associated with NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco's longtime advocacy for catch share fisheries — have proposed a similar "catch and trade" allocation policy to help bring to an end commercial whaling.
The authors, Christopher Costello, Leah R. Gerber and Steven Gaines, argue that, by allocating whale shares to nations based on "historical whaling patterns ... transactions would reduce the number of whales harvested, quite possibly to zero, unlike existing protocols (that) seem to be increasing the catches."
In the Jan. 12 Nature article, headlined "A market approach to saving the whales," the authors explain that, by their estimates, global profits from commercial whaling of $31 million were nearly matched by the expenses, $25 million, of anti-whaling activism.
Moreover, considering what they said were current market prices — $13,000 for a minke whale to $85,000 for a humpback — under a catch share market for whales, "whale prices should therefore be within reach of conservation groups and even some individuals" to gain control of the harvest.
"Whalers would be suitably compensated," they wrote, "and because trades are voluntary, the market would have the potential to make all parties better off, and simultaneously improve whale conservation."
This signal step — adding whales to the global commodity investment market — lies at the heart of the case for gaining control of and gradually reducing commercial whaling.
Writing in 2008 for then-President-elect Obama, Gaines and Costello — together with Lubchenco — helped coauthor a script for converting fisheries to the catch share management system that is now effect in New England and elsewhere.
But their pamphlet, "Oceans of Abundance," neglected to discuss how linking fisheries — which remain largely locally- and operator-owned — into global investment commodities trading also exposes them to acquisition and control by external interests.
In the Nature piece, Costello, Gerber and Gaines' claim of an expanding commercial market for whales is difficult to corroborate. But one website, cosponsored by the Humane Society International and two other conservation groups, indicates commercial whaling has remained level at about 500 cetaceans a year for more than a decade.
The Nature article has brought waves of reaction — little of it positive — from across the spectrum of science, consumer interests, conservation and the fishing industry. Many critics described various ethical problems with the catch share approach, however efficient it might be.
"'Catch and trade' applies market forces to reallocate public or 'free' resources to seemingly more beneficial outcomes," said Brian Rothschild, the distinguished marine biologist at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, advocate for the commercial fishing industry and critic of the catch share regimen created in 2010 to govern the New England groundfishery. The catch share system is largely a product of the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund, which also developed the "cap and trade" policy for dealing with air pollution.
"For example, application of the catch-and-trade system to global whaling can be used to eliminate commercial whaling — whoever has the most money wins. But is this an ethical approach to resource allocation?" Rothschild wrote in an email to the Times.
"Many of our resources are owned by the 'public,' or by 'society,' or are 'the common heritage of mankind (such as national parks and air space),'" he added. "Should they be for sale?"
"This 'market proposal' to saving the whales is just another example of the commercial privatization of our oceans for the benefit of private enterprise," said Mitch Jones, fish program director for the consumers' group Food & Water Watch.
"If the real goal is to reduce the number of whales harvested every year, then we should start by enforcing the International Whaling Commission moratorium on whale hunting," he said. "We could begin by no longer permitting 1000 whales to be taken for the commercial market under the guise of 'scientific research.'"
"This proposal," he said, "is really just a catch shares for whales program, allowing whalers the opportunity to buy and sell the right to hunt whales. That's not a solution to the problem of harvesting too many whales.
"The proposal is another example of the wrongheaded belief that a resource has to be privately controlled in order to be sustainably managed," wrote Jones.
Other ethical problems with the catch shares for whales proposal came from anti-whaling interests.
Hal Whitehead, a Dalhousie University biologist, interviewed for a piece in Wired Science, compared the proposal to slavery for those people who consider whales to be "persons."
"Trading persons is basically slavery," he said, "although in this case rather worse than slavery, as the slaves, once bought, are to be killed."
A deputy undersecretary of commerce, Monica Medina, U.S. commissioner to the International Whaling Commission and Lubchenco's choice to head up the catch share task force that helped imbed the Oceans of Abundance proposal into policy, deflected questions Wednesday about the proposal for a global catch share program for whales.
"We agree with the authors that it would be best to end commercial whaling and we would like to break the deadlock over this issue at the IWC," she said in a prepared statement. "However, all previous efforts to do that have unfortunately failed. Now, countries that oppose commercial whaling, including the United States, are instead seeking to expand the commission's work on a number of important conservation initiatives."
The Environmental Defense Fund issued a statement to the Times, saying it "isn't actively involved in whaling politics and policy, and we feel there are substantial differences between fishing policy and whaling."
"Catch shares is an effective answer to the serious problems facing commercial fisheries, which is good for the species that live in the oceans — including whales," the EDF statement said.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3464, or at email@example.com.