What Bid Do I Hear for the Life of That Thar Whale?

02/07/2012 10:12 am ET | Updated Apr 08, 2012
  • Carl Safina Author and host, 'Saving the Ocean' on PBS

How naive I was to have thought, back in my relative youth, that the 1986 global ban on whaling was, well -- a global ban on whaling.

Whaling not only continues, it's intensifying. Each year now, Japan, Norway, and Iceland kill about 1,600 whales (mostly Finback and Minke). That's about four or five whales a day. Arctic indigenous hunters kill about one more whale every day. Since there seem to be few, if any, countries with an interest in more whale hunting, the countries that want to go whaling are pretty much doing what they want, ban or not. It adds up to twice as many as in the early days of the ongoing "ban."

What else might work? How about paying whalers not to kill whales? That a proposal recently floated in the journal Nature.

I'm not even sure why more whales are killed now than a couple of decades ago. In the developed world, where essentially all commercial whaling and whale-meat selling happens, whale meat is something needed much more by whales than by people. Indeed, in countries where whales are killed and sold, most people's main health issue is that they have too much blubber of their own.

One reason whale killing persists is that foreign opposition triggers in the halls and heads of state the adolescent need to "save face." That might be the main reason. Japan's populace doesn't care to eat whale meat and in every commercial-whaling country the government must subsidize the money-losing enterprise. But they'd rather lose money than look like they caved to pressure. Meanwhile, anti-whaling groups spend tens of millions to stop the killing, yet more and more whales are being killed. So it's not working.

And that's why, a quarter-century after the increasingly fractured whaling ban began, the new proposal is: If you can't beat 'em, buy 'em. Put a price on whales, and let killers and savers trade. Think of it as WhaleMart.

The idea is at least three decades old (first proposed in 1982), but since then we've had the whaling ban and its unraveling, the rise of similar buy-and-trade catch shares in fisheries, trading pollution-emissions credits for air pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, land trusts buying land from developers for conservation, and carbon offsets. So the idea of buying shares of an environmental problem is more tested and more familiar. Maybe its time has come.

But is whaling really a conservation problem or just a values conflict? The number of whales allowed to be killed is probably sustainable. My objections are two: 1) Whalers apparently lie a lot. A famous study of DNA of whale meat for sale in Japan found that a lot of whale meat labeled as common, "allowed" species were, in fact, rare and supposedly protected whales. Because it's hard to know what they're killing, it is hard to tell whether the killing is sustainable; 2) The scale of whales' lives are so big that killing them is just too much an affront to life compared to, say, killing a fly.

Yes Americans eat cows. I'm certainly not defending meat eating and factory farming, but there are differences between eating domestic animals and whales. For one, the more cows we eat, the more cows there are.

But because whales are not bred for slaughter, they can be exterminated (several nearly were). They are never killed humanely. They panic, they suffer. Hunting disrupts their families, leaving doomed orphans. And, they are mammals whose very large brains are like ours.

And what do they do with those enormous brains? "It's like they're living in these massive, multicultural, undersea societies," says Hal Whitehead, a world expert on sperm whales at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. "It's sort of strange. Really the closest analogy we have for it would be ourselves." Oh, and it seems that they give each other names.
Yet there is something in humankind that abhors the peace for which we yearn, and so, on many fronts, we weave unsteadily and with aching slowness toward and away from a less brutalized world.

And it's exactly that kind of value argument that gets in the way, argue the proposal's authors, economist Christopher Costello of the University of California, Santa Barbara, along with biologists Steve Gaines and Leah Gerber.

Want to just solve the problem? They estimate that whaling makes about $31 million in profits. Anti-whaling spends $25 million. If the anti-whaling money directly paid whalers not to hunt -- problem solved.

I have to ask myself which I find more objectionable: the idea of paying people not to do something I think is wrong, or the wrongdoing.

Dr. Whitehead claims the whole premise of trading whales' lives is wrong, because whales are more like "persons" than resources. Writer Brandon Keim says that many whale species, "fit any reasonable definition of personhood that doesn't hinge on being human." And buying and selling persons is the moral equivalent of slavery.

But if you could buy a slave and free them? Put that way, I'd swallow my objections and write a check.