Monday, March 15, 2010

Working with Nature

As the IWC prepares to consider a highly controversial plan to allow commercial whaling to resume (read the thoughts of ASOC's IWC representative, Dr. Sidney Holt, here), a story from Mexico puts the plan into perspective. Pacific grey whales used to be dangerous to fishermen in northwest Baja California when whaling took place, but one day one of them decided to eyeball a local fisherman, Pachico Mayoral, who was intrigued enough not to try to scare off the whale as he normally would. He now runs a flourishing whale watching business that consults scientists to ensure that expeditions are respectful of the whales. Locals who have seen the benefits of this tourism helped defeat plans to build a giant salt evaporation plant in the lagoon, and instead promote responsible tourism. Though not all have seen economic benefits from this new industry, it is promising. As Mayoral says "If we treat this resource well, who knows how long we'll have it for?"

When whaling was allowed, grey whale numbers declined, leading to the cessation of whaling in 1947. With countries considering sanctioning commercial whaling again, it's important to think about the Baja example. Whale watching generates over two billion dollars in revenue around the world, and slightly less than half of that money (about $870 million) comes directly from fees associated with tours. Meanwhile, whaling for meat is subsidized, because, well, people don't think it's all that good. So while there are some die-hard whale meat lovers, concerns about mercury levels coupled with an unusual flavor are likely to prevent whale from becoming popular. Which, whaling countries may say, is exactly why whaling should occur - there won't be a drive to kill large numbers of whales, so why not let a few from populations that seem to have recovered be killed? This brings us back to Baja. Once whaling stopped, whales were willing to approach humans, benefiting whale watching companies. A New York Times reporter related earlier this year how one mother took the extraordinary step of presenting her calf to a boat of human whale watchers - a brave move for the normally protective species. Increased whaling may change those behaviors right back for some species. Sentimental feelings about whales aside, any sensible person has to agree with Mayoral here - nonlethal uses of whales are proven to generate more long-term revenue and development than short-term slaughter ever did. People often complain about environmental regulations because they'd hurt business, but in this case opening up commercial whaling is far less economically sound than banning it.

A similar effect has been seen with other species - protecting gorillas in Rwanda led to a thriving gorilla-watching industry. Working with nature rather than working to extract from nature may be less immediately satisfying, but it pays off.

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