Putting a Price on Whales to Save Them: What Do Morals Have to Do with It?

By Babcock, Hope M. | Environmental Law, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

Putting a Price on Whales to Save Them: What Do Morals Have to Do with It?


Babcock, Hope M., Environmental Law


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"Environmental law needs ethics because it is blind without values." (1)

This Essay focuses on a commentary published in the journal Nature by a professor of natural resource economics at the University of California's Bren School of Environmental Science and Econonfics, the Dean of the Bren School, and an ecologist from Arizona State University. (2) The trio--justifiably troubled by the inability of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) to protect whales because of paralyzing schisms between whaling and non-whaling members, among other problems--suggested instead that the IWC administer an international market in whale shares. (3) Under their proposal, member nations would receive allowances to hunt whales at "sustainable harvest levels." (4) They could harvest their quotas, hold onto them for a year, or retire them permanently. (5) Some whale shares would be auctioned off with the earnings going to conservation efforts (not necessarily whale-related), and all allowances would be tradable in a global market. (6)

I found the proposal initially seductive, then troubling, eventually horrifying; and I stepped back to figure out why--hence the genesis of this Essay. I concluded that it was because whales have an intrinsic right to life, that the proposal to kill some whales in order to save others was deeply bothersome and ultimately unacceptable because of its amorality. (7) Since my conclusion leaves whales to the mercy of unfixable flaws in the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling and the dysfunction of the IWC, I suggest here that international environmental organizations, through a combination of education and interventionist activities focusing on the cruelty of whaling, might help a whale preservation norm emerge in whaling nations by encouraging the citizens and governments of those nations to change their serf-image as whale-eating cultures. That this will not be an easy task is apparent from an article appearing this summer in The Guardian indicating that restaurants in Greenland were serving endangered bowhead whale meat to tourists and that its supermarkets were selling endangered fin whale meat. (8)

Let me begin with a few words on whales, and the flawed international regulatory regime designed to protect them, before I turn to my arguments on why we owe whales a moral duty not to kill them, why markets are poor exemplars of this principle, and how a whale preservation norm would be the better alternative to ensure their survival.

Whales are magnificent, remarkable animals that have a strong magnetic hold on people--the enduring popularity of MobyDiek9 and Free Willy (10) illustrate how whales grab and hold onto our imagination. A further example of this fascination is whale-watching, which is a billion dollar global industry. (11) While hunting is not the only threat to the survival of whales, (12) it is the most visible one and, for our purposes, the one that drew the attention of the journal authors. (13)

Because whales reproduce slowly, reach maturity late, travel in small pods, and are mostly found on the high seas14 (which are largely unregulated), (15) they have been especially vulnerable to hunting pressures. For hundreds of years, a form of "frontier economics" (16) operated in the open oceans when it came to whaling. In the early twentieth century, the advent of more lethal and efficient methods of killing whales, like exploding harpoons and factory ships, accelerated the slaughter. (17) Even when it was known that whale stocks were rapidly declining, and with them the fate of the whaling industry, the pressure to continue hunting whales remained. (18) The unrelenting decline in great whales even came to the attention of the League of Nations because of the potential collapse of the whaling industry. (19) By 1948, over 43,000 whales were killed annually. (20)

Starting in 1918, there were international attempts to stop the slaughter of whales, including one initiative by the whaling industry to protect the price of whale oil. …

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