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Researchers Propose Putting a Price on Whales

Few wild animals stoke higher passions than whales. Environmental groups spend millions each year campaigning against whaling, and some even jump into rubber boats to chase down Japanese whaling vessels. Now three researchers are proposing to resolve the conflict and lower the number of whale deaths by adopting a "cap and trade" system. But that idea is itself controversial.

In a comment in tomorrow's issue of Nature entitled "Conversation Science: A market approach to saving the whales," Christopher Costello and Steven Gaines of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Leah Gerber of Arizona State University, Tempe, sketch out a system that would give countries permits to catch a certain number of whales. The permits could then be traded among stakeholders so that conservation groups in one country, say, could purchase permits from the whalers in another country. The permits would be issued by the International Whaling Commission and capped so that populations are not endangered. "I'm convinced it would work," says Costello, who says he's received positive feedback from the whaling industry and environmental groups.

The researchers estimate that whaling generates about $31 million a year in profits, while environmental groups spend about $25 million campaigning against whaling. That investment would have a bigger payoff if used to buy permits from whalers, Costello and colleagues argue. The price tag could range from $13,000 for a minke whale to $85,000 for a fin whale, they calculate.

Martin Smith, an environmental economist at Duke University, says the trading system could have unintended negative consequences. If fewer whales are killed but the demand for whale meat stays the same, he says, then prices will rise -- and that could stimulate illegal whaling. "This issue needs to be thought through clearly," he says. Costello admits that policing the market for whale meat would be challenging, but not impossible.

Greenpeace is not a fan of the proposal. "The whole idea of a resumption of commercial whaling is abhorrent," says oceans campaigner Phil Kline. The environmental organization is trying to pressure whaling countries like Japan and Iceland to stop whaling entirely, something that a trading system might be hard-pressed to accomplish.