Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Costs of Whaling

Iceland's delegate to the IWC meeting has a great sense of humor. According to a BBC article, the delegate asserted that whaling and whale watching were industries that could enjoy simultaneous growth. The comment came in response to an International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) report that was released this week. The report stated that the whale watching industry generates over $2 billion in revenue every year (read report). Contrast that to last week's WWF report on the millions in subsidies Japan and Norway give money-losing whaling industries just to keep them afloat, and it's difficult to understand the intransigence of whaling nations.

But back to Iceland. The idea that there are ways to exploit natural resources without depleting them utterly is a good one. Sustainable use of resources usually enhances, not hampers, economic growth (see the recent stories about how clearcutting in the Brazilian rainforest makes people poorer in the long run). However, sustainable use is not applicable in all situations. Whales would likely begin avoiding vessels of all kinds if hunting increased. Studies also show that whale watchers are strongly anti-whaling, and are not as likely to visit countries with growing whaling industries. So countries pursuing a growth in both industries will perhaps find that even as they must subsidize whaling, tourism revenues are declining. Everyone loses!

Furthermore, despite the endless parade of stories about overfishing, the world is still struggling to enact meaningful laws and regulations that will stop serious population declines. One of the reasons for this is that the needs of industry often seem to come before the recommendations of scientists. Another is that people seem determined not to acknowledge that wild fish (and whales) cannot be treated like underwater livestock. Their populations aren't privately held, they aren't corralled and bred, and they are hard to count accurately - hence the global decline. Demand for bison meat has helped increase the population of American buffalo, but I cannot think of a single instance in which popularity has done the same for a marine species. Usually the populations just crash. Combine this dismal history with the aforementioned refusal to accept scientific data, and an increase in catches spells doom for any marine species. So the idea that the fin whale, whose population has yet to recover from commercial whaling (ended in 1965) is ready for more slaughter is ludicrous. Fin whales reproduce every 3-4 years, meaning that even small catches could further slow their full recovery.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the BBC story is the role reversal. Environmental advocates often receive criticism for their supposedly idealistic devotion to conservation at the expense of practical economic considerations. Yet here IFAW stands on the side of the practical, promoting the moneymaking, increasingly popular whale watching industry while the governments of whaling nations insist on expanding their hunts even though they are unprofitable and unpopular. Even if you have no particular love for whales, you can't deny that making $2 billion dollars sounds a lot better than losing millions.

No comments: