Opinion

Gareth Cook

Save the whales . . . going once

What if whale lovers could buy whale hunters’ permits?

STEVE BRODNER FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

OUR PLANET’S approach to whale conservation has been on sorry display in the waters around Antarctica.

Massive Japanese ships plow through the frigid waters of the Southern Ocean, harpooning minke whales and dragging their bleeding bodies aboard to be butchered for consumption back home. Exploiting a loophole in a toothless international moratorium on commercial whaling, the Japanese claim their boats are conducting “scientific research.’’

In these same waters, much smaller ships try to stop the Japanese. They call themselves the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, and their goal is to harass, frustrate, and embarrass the whalers. Flying a modified Jolly Roger - with the crossbones replaced by a trident and shepherd’s crook - they lob stink bombs, tangle the whaling boats’ propellers, and generally make it difficult for them to work. Three Australian Sea Shepherd activists recently boarded one of the vessels, setting off a diplomatic row that was resolved when the Japanese finally agreed to release them last week.

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A new proposal by three academics aims to end a deadlock over whaling - a decades-long argument pitting “whaling is wrong’’ against “you have no right to end our cultural tradition.’’

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The researchers suggest a new system, in which permits are given out that grant the right to kill a whale, with a clever twist: The permits could then be auctioned, allowing environmental groups to buy them from the whalers, limiting the hunt. Whales could be saved - for a price. It’s a creative proposal that offers a novel approach where one is badly needed: Whaling policy is stuck in the wrong century.

Whale hunting goes back millennia, but by the 18th century, new maritime technology made the practice truly intensive. When the market for whale oil boomed, ports like Nantucket and New Bedford flowed with tremendous wealth; the mansions of whale captains still stand, and still impress. The whalers became too good at their vocation, though, and whale populations plummeted.

Even as the whales were disappearing, the environmental movement was inspiring people to look at the world around them with fresh eyes. The blue whale is the largest animal to have ever existed on Earth. To see a whale up close, or to hear its song, is to recognize the presence of an alien intelligence.

In 1986, a worldwide moratorium on commercial whaling took effect, with an exception for indigenous communities with whaling traditions - groups such as the Inuit of northern Canada and Alaska. Yet Japan, Iceland, and Norway have all found ways to circumvent the ban. Meanwhile, the number of whales hunted has more than doubled since the early 1990s. The political debate has reached a kind of righteous stasis.

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The new proposal, published last week in the journal Nature, suggests reframing the argument. They begin with an illuminating economic analysis. The total profit from commercial whaling is around $31 million a year, if not less. Anti-whaling campaigns, meanwhile, amount to $25 million annually. Many whalers would no doubt prefer to be paid to do nothing, and those who oppose whaling would find that they could save many more whales for their money, argues Christopher Costello, an economist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and one of the paper’s authors. Some of the funds from the auctions would go to monitoring and enforcement, preventing poaching.

A spokesperson for Greenpeace told me they saw little merit in the proposal. Whaling is on its way out, he said, and there is no reason to write checks to whalers. But Costello argues that many people would be interested in paying to save a whale’s life, including many who don’t currently donate to the likes of Greenpeace or Sea Shepherd.

It’s not clear that the proposal offered by Costello and his colleagues will gain political traction. Yet it contains an essential insight: Whales are worth more alive than they are dead. A report by the International Fund for Animal Welfare showed that whale watching was a $2.1 billion business globally in 2008.

Indigenous groups should be able to continue their hunts, as long as it is for subsistence and the whale populations are not threatened. Everyone else should stop. At this point, I’d be happy to pay whalers to do the right thing, and I am sure that I’m not alone.

Gareth Cook can be reached at cook@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @garethideas.