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Originally published January 12, 2012 at 10:05 PM | Page modified January 13, 2012 at 7:02 AM

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Researchers propose price on whaling

Three academics are proposing a market-based trading system for commercial whaling, a proposal that is drawing interest from the Obama administration and environmentalists.

The Washington Post

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Hoping to defuse a 30-year feud over whale hunting, three academics are making an audacious proposal: The world should put a price on killing whales, and allow conservationists and whalers alike to bid on the right to take them.

Calling it "a market that would be economically, ecologically and socially viable for whalers and whales alike," an economist and two marine scientists suggested in a commentary published by the journal Nature on Wednesday that the International Whaling Commission (IWC) could allocate catch quotas between whaling and anti-whaling nations while holding some back for an open auction.

The idea of a market-based trading system for commercial whaling is not unprecedented; a Canadian natural-resources professor mentioned it in 1982, and a Virginia economist offered a more detailed scenario a decade ago.

But the new proposal is attracting interest from Obama administration officials and some environmentalists who have become frustrated by the impasse over how to enforce a global whaling moratorium rejected by Japan, Iceland and Norway.

In the past three years, an average of nearly 2,000 whales have been killed annually by those three nations, along with aboriginal groups in Denmark, Russia and the United States. That's more than double the yearly toll in the 1990s.

The Obama and the George W. Bush administrations sought to forge a worldwide deal that would have allowed whaling nations to hunt whales legally as long as the nations curbed their catch. Annually, Japan takes about 1,000 whales "for scientific purposes," while Norway and Iceland together take about 600.

Efforts to clinch a deal failed in 2010, leaving conservationists and whale hunters divided on how to regulate whaling.

Christopher Costello, the new paper's lead author, called the current system "totally ineffective" because "everyone thinks they either have a right to whale or let whales live."

"Somehow you have to come up with a way to allocate whales between those two visions," said Costello, a professor of natural-resource economics at the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara. In this system, he said, "Both sides have something to gain, and fewer whales will be killed."

Under the "whale-conservation market" outlined by Costello and his two co-authors, Bren School dean Steven Gaines and Arizona State University ecologist Leah Gerber, all IWC members would receive allowances to hunt whales at "sustainable harvest levels" and have the option of harvesting their quotas, holding onto them for a year or permanently retiring them. Some shares would be auctioned off, with the proceeds going to conservation efforts, and all allowances would be tradable in a global market.

Some environmentalists attacked the plan for undermining the current whaling ban. Greenpeace whales campaigner Phil Kline said it would be impossible to distinguish between legal and illegal hunting if whaling were legalized again: "It would be safe to assume illegal whaling would flourish if a legal whaling trade was set up."

Officials from Japan and Iceland declined to comment on the proposal.

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