Privatize the Whales

(from "The Asian Wall Street Journal", 17-18/Oct/1997)

Michael De Alessi

The International Whaling Commission has always been slow to react to political and scientific realities. When it was formed in 1946 as a whaling cartel, it failed to control hunting that nearly depleted whale stocks. More recently it has become a forum dominated by animal-rights groups that refuses to allow any commercial whaling, sustainable or otherwise. Now countries adversely affected by unreasonable preservationist policies are getting fed up, and if the IWC, which meets in Monaco next week, does not begin to adapt, its days are surely numbered.

In the late 1960s, whale populations around the world were suffering from over a century of nearly unfettered exploitation, and critics quite rightly pointed out that the IWC had failed to stem this decline. When environmentalists finally wrested control of the IWC in 1982, the result was a complete ban on commercial whaling that went into effect in 1986. Today many of the world's great whale species are thriving, but the IWC remains in denial.

In its effort to promote preservation over conservation, the IWC routinely ignores the findings of its own scientific committee. Thus in 1993 the chairman of the IWC scientific committee, Philip Hammond, resigned in disgust. The IWC moratorium on whaling had "nothing to do with science," he said, and the work of the scientific committee was "held in ... disregard by the body to which it is responsible."

The case of the diminutive minke (the smallest of the baleen whales at only 30 feet long) is a good example. Some years ago the IWC scientific committee estimated the world-wide minke whale population at about one million animals, even more abundant than before commercial whaling began. Remarkably, the IWC still considers them threatened with extinction.

Such unjustifiable policies are diminishing the IWC's credibility and authority. Faced with the moratorium, some nations with an interest in whaling, most notably Iceland and Canada, simply dropped out. Today the group has 39 member countries. Subsistence whaling continues in a number of countries, and Japan and Norway legally harvest minke whales commercially - Japan under the auspices of scientific research and Norway under an exception taken to the moratorium.

Norway and Japan are maligned for their continued whaling, but their hunts hardly pose a threat to whale populations. In the 1997 whaling season Norwegian whalers took 503 minkes in the North Atlantic from a population estimated at 112,000 animals. In the Southern Ocean above Antarctica, the minke whale population is estimated at 760,000, and an extremely conservative harvest model developed by the IWC set the sustainable harvest level in this region at 2,000 minkes annually. In 1996 Japan harvested 440. Even so, at its 1996 meeting, the IWC adopted a resolution urging Japan to terminate its research and for Norway to cease commercial whaling altogether.

With few rational reasons left to oppose whaling, the anti-whaling camp increasingly resorts to theatrics and exaggerations. During a demonstration outside of the IWC meeting two years ago in Dublin, Greenpeace activists equated whaling to "slavery, human sacrifice, and the binding of women's feet," and led a prayer for "our brothers and sisters the animals." But it is not just environmentalists who employ to such tactics. In May the Australian government released a report of its National Task Force on Whaling, which recommended, among other things, a permanent ban on commercial whaling due to factors such as the "panic and confusion" among whales caused by the hunt.

Ridiculous as they are, these arguments seem to carry the day for the simple reason that the whaling constituency has long since disappeared from countries like the U.S., Britain, Australia and New Zealand, and never existed in others, like landlocked Switzerland. For these countries, opposing any sort of commercial whaling wins points with the green vote and offends few people at home. For many years Britain couched its opposition to whaling in scientific terms, but in 1996, as the evidence in support of whaling mounted, British Fisheries Minister Tony Baldry admitted that science was not the issue - opposition to commercial whaling was simply a popular stance to take.

Now, however, the tide is beginning to turn. At the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species meeting in June, proposals by Norway and Japan to remove the trade ban from certain populations of minke whales garnered far more support than in previous years. The Norwegian proposal even won majority support (but still failed to pass - two-thirds is needed), compared with meeting three-to-one opposition at the 1994 conference. The world is finally awakening to the politicization of science and the dominance of international conservation by a small number of zealots.

If the IWC is to survive, it must respond to this new reality. Moreover, to become an effective forum for whalers and environmentalists alike, it must recognize and address the reasons why it has performed so poorly to date.

"The tragedy of the commons," not commerce, is to blame for the threat to whales. When biologist Garrett Hardin first coined that phrase in 1968, he pointed out that a lack of ownership brought "species after species of fish and whales to the brink of extinction." Any whales that the far-ranging whalers left behind were likely to be harpooned by someone else, so conservation was impossible. Valuable species left untended may be ripe for extirpation, but valuable species in private hands will not only be protected, they will be studied and encouraged to multiply by owners seeking to increase the value of their assets.

Private conservation saved the American buffalo, the South African bontebock and countless other species that were hunted to the brink of extinction except on private lands. Similarly, in the Pacific Northwest of the United States and Canada, native tribes hunted great whales for centuries without destroying stocks. They had a sense of proprietorship that encouraged conservation and stewardship.

Allowing whales to be owned by individuals, groups or communities would be the surest way to ensure their continued survival. Owners could benefit from measures they took to protect their whales, whether for hunting, whale-watching or merely for the satisfaction of knowing they were protected. Just think of the numbers of whales that Greenpeace could ensure would never be hunted if it put all of the millions it spends on its propaganda campaigns into retiring harvest rights for whales or otherwise directly protecting them.

Privatizing whales may seem farfetched, but in fact the technological obstacles to an ownership program are rapidly disappearing. Back in the heyday of whaling, it was simply not feasible to exert ownership over living whales, but the whalers did construct an elaborate set of rules that governed harpooned whales. Readers of "Moby Dick" will be reminded of clearly marked harpoons that carried different rights of proprietorship over a whale depending on the speed of the current and the type of whale. In 1993, scientists tracked a single blue whale for 43 days over 3,200 kilometers (1,984 miles) based solely on its individual song. Other advanced technologies such as satellites and unmanned submersibles could be even more effective if given the chance.

The IWC teeters on the brink of irrelevancy. It routinely ignores its own scientific advice and has turned into an overly politicized and ineffective forum. To remain relevant, it must evolve, and its highest service to whales, whalers and environmentalists alike would be a legacy of some form of ownership over the great whales.

Mr. De Alessi is coordinator of the Center for Private Conservation, a project of the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.