Volume 20, No.3, Fall 2002

Hunting — and Saving — Whales

By Gregory B. Christainsen and Brian C. Gothberg

In July, forty-five pilot whales, stranded on the coast of Cape Cod, died in spite of repeated efforts by volunteers to save them. This sad event offered just one minor consolation: News coverage of the whales’ plight informed people everywhere that there are still whales in the oceans- perhaps many more than they had realized.

I No cry of environmentalists has been as loud as "Save the Whales!" demand to protect whales, backed by public conviction that most endangered, has spurred the International Whaling Commission maintain its moratorium on commercial whaling, even though some stocks of whales are now clearly abundant. The purpose of this article, based on a longer one in The Technology of Property Rights (Christainsen and Gothberg 2001) is to offer a more rational approach to public with respect to whales.

A key to a more rational policy is technology that makes it possible to know which vessels are conducting whaling, where they are located, and what whale meat is being sold. This knowledge is not only useful for enforcing existing whaling regulations; it could also support the adoption of individual transferable quotas or community development quotas (ITQs or CDQs). Such an approach to the conservation of marine life has successfully prevented overfishing of species from Alaska to New Zealand (Muse and Schelle 1988, Leal 2002). Ultimately, improvements in technology could lead to the low-cost tagging of individual whales and thus make feasible individual whale ownership-just as branding and fencing methods made feasible the ownership of cattle.

Today, the view that almost all killing of whales is wrong (with exceptions made for hunting by aboriginal peoples and for certain research purposes) drives the International Whaling Commission. Antiwhaling forces have gathered strength ever since 1972, when the United States first proposed a ban on commercial whaling. Animal rights activists led by Greenpeace later packed the IWC by recruiting additional nonwhaling countries to become members (Spencer and Bollwerk 1991). The enlarged IWC then approved a moratorium on all commercial whaling in 1982. The moratorium became effective in 1986.

This moratorium led both Canada and Iceland to withdraw from the commission. After 1987 Japan decided to harvest 300 whales per year (for allegedly scientific purposes), and Norway resumed commercial whaling in 1993. Meanwhile, the IWC asked its Scientific Committee to devise an improved management process for governing whaling, a gesture that suggested that whaling could be resumed on a larger scale if whale stocks appeared to be abundant. The committee estimated that the area south of 40 degrees south latitude probably contains more than 750,000 minke whales. In 1994, however, the IWC announced steadfastly that no commercial whaling was to be permitted in the region, whereupon the head of the Scientific Committee resigned.

This situation is ironic because the IWC has identified numerous technologies that it could use to enforce whaling regulations. The techniques, part of the IWC’s proposed Revised Management Scheme or RMS, would go into effect if commercial whaling resumes under IWC jurisdiction. They include satellite monitoring of whaling vessels, onboard observers, and (probably) DNA testing of whales and whale products.

Under the proposed plan, large whaling vessels would be monitored via the twenty-four satellites of the U.S. Department of Defense’s global positioning system (GPS). Shorter boats, such as those used by Norwegian whalers, would have to at least be able to communicate with authorities by means of shipboard radio.

DNA technologies would probably play an important part as well. Like humans and other animals that reproduce sexually, each whale has a unique genetic code that is revealed in tissue samples (Baker and Palumbi 1994; Cipriano and Palumbi 1999; Palsboll et al. 1997). Samples can be collected by a small dart on a tether to nick the surface of the whale and retrieve a tiny piece of tissue (Lambertsen 1987), by collecting streamers of skin that peel off whales as they bump against each other during social contact (Clapham et al. 1993), and by samples taken from dead whales after either hunting or natural death. As with human fingerprints, a database of many individuals can be built over time. If products are being sold from illegally hunted whales, their DNA can be checked against the entries in the database. Norway has already established such a database.

Earthtrust, an environmental group based in Kailua, Hawaii, has developed a same-day field test for a whale species that uses a DNA polymerase primer, a chemical that highlights only the DNA characteristics that exist in a single whale stock or population. Using this approach, Earthtrust has been able to show the origin of meat sold in Japanese markets. Most of the sampled meat has been from (legal) Southern Hemisphere scientific hunting of minke whales, but some has been from protected whale stocks or from dolphins (Earthtrust 1996). The good news is that the extent to which protected whale stocks have been raided appears to have declined over time, perhaps in part because of the advent of DNA testing.

The IWC’s RMS would also rely on the human eye to monitor the activities of whalers. The government of each whaling nation is supposed to appoint and pay for inspectors to watch over whalers who operate in its coastal waters. There are also provisions for the possible use of international observers appointed by the IWC.

However, the IWC has taken no steps to make the RMS a reality. Some commentators charge that the IWC discusses these methods simply to make it appear that the commission is considering allowing commercial whaling even though it has no such intention (Aron et al. 1999).

Logistically, the new techniques have even greater potential. They could allow individual transferable quotas (ITQs) to be applied to whales.

By assuring that each whaler can have a portion of the total catch, ITQs would end the open-access commons of the oceans, which led to declines in whales in the past. Under ITQs, each whaler would have a right to a future supply of whales, and thus an incentive to conserve whales for the future rather than capture as many as possible.

Each year the IWC could set total allowable catch limits for each stock of whales. Each whaler would have a share of this total allowable catch (which would change from time to time as new evidence emerged regarding the size of each stock). For example, a whaler with a 3 percent share of the harvest of northeast Atlantic minkes would be entitled to catch 27 whales per year if the total catch limit were 900 whales annually. Whalers could legally catch additional whales only by buying up catch rights held by others. Conversely, whalers who did not to want use their entire quotas could sell some of their rights.

Freely tradable entitlements of the kind proposed here are sometimes seen as a threat to community traditions because outsiders might buy up scarce rights. It would be possible to deal with such situations by vesting some whaling rights in communities rather than individuals. A community could still trade whaling rights with outsiders, but might choose not to do so. Tradable community development quotas (CDQs) for some fishing rights already exist for some Native American settlements in Alaska (De Alessi 1998, 46-47).

It would also be possible to vest certain conservation trusts with tradable rights to whales. An example of such a conservation organization is the Center for Coastal Studies (CCS), a private nonprofit group in Provincetown, Massachusetts (www.ccs.org). This organization currently uses satellite and radio tags to monitor the status of humpback and North Atlantic right whales from the coast of Maine to the tip of Florida. If a whale becomes trapped in fish netting or buoy lines or is otherwise in trouble, CCS is authorized by the National Marine Fisheries Service to engage in a rescue mission, typically by disentangling the whale.

A CCS endowed with tradable rights might occasionally sell one or two animals (e.g., to whalers) if their value were sufficiently high (and CCS could therefore get a very good price for them). However, the organization would only be able to sell whales legally if such a transaction would arguably result in a net enhancement of its conservation mission- perhaps by financing the purchase of new monitoring or rescue equipment. Giving up one or two whales from an abundant stock now could help save several others from an endangered stock at a later time. Public trust organizations might also be established to supplement private groups.

With the help of modern technology, a regime of tradable rights could thus be established that effectively conserves whale stocks while permitting a return to commercial whaling. When people are informed that many stocks of whales are not endangered, they generally support the idea of limited hunting rights (Freeman and Kellert 1994), but as both American and British representatives to the IWC have admitted, current policy is based on emotions and not on science.


Aron, William, William Burke, and Milton Freeman. 1999. Flouting the Convention. Atlantic Monthly, May, 22-29.

Baker, C. S., and S. R. Palumbi. 1994. Which Whales Are Hunted? A Molecular Genetic Approach to Monitoring Whaling. Science, 9 September, 1538-39.

Christainsen, Gregory B., and Brian Gothberg. 2001. The Potential of High Technology for Establishing Tradable Rights to Whales, in The Technology of Property Rights,, ed. Terry L. Anderson and Peter J. Hill. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 101-21.

Cipriano, Frank, and Stephen R. Palumbi. 1999. Genetic Tracking of a Protected Whale. Nature, 28 January, 307-08. Clapham, Phillip. 1997. Whales of the World. Stillwater, MN: Voyageur Press.

Clapham, Phillip J., Per J. Palsboll, and David K. Mattila. 1993. High-Energy Behaviors in Humpback Whales as a Source of Sloughed Skin for Molecular Analysis. Marine Mammal Science 9(April): 213-20.

De Alessi, Michael. 1998. Fishing for Solutions,. London: Institute of Economic Affairs.

Earthtrust. 1996. ET’s DNA Work Continues to Set the World Standard. Online: http://www.earthtrust.org/prezltr2.html (cited October 23, 2000).

Freeman, Milton R., and Stephen R. Kellert. 1994. International Attitudes to Whales, Whaling, and the Use of Whale Products: A Six-Country Survey. In Elephants and Whales: Resources for Whom? ed. Milton R. Freeman and Urs P. Krueter. Basel, Switzerland: Gordon and Breach Science Publishers.

Lambertsen, Richard H. 1987. A Biopsy System for Large Whales and Its Use in Cytogenetics. Journal of Mammology 68(May): 443-45.

Leal, Donald R. 2002. Fencing the Fishery: A Primer on Ending the Race for Fish. Bozeman, MT: PERC.

Muse, Ben, and Kurt Schelle. 1988. New Zealand’s ITQ Program. Alaska Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission Paper 88-3. Juneau, June.

Palsboll, Per, et al. 1997. Genetic Tagging of Humpback Whales. Nature, August 21, 767-69.

Spencer, Leslie, and Jan Bollwerk (with Richard Morais). 1991. The Not So Peaceful World of Greenpeace. Forbes,, November 11, 174-77.

Gregory B. Christainsen is professor of economics at California State University, Hayward. Brian C. Gothberg is completing his master’s degree in economics at California State University, Hayward. This article is adapted from "The Potential of High Technology for Establishing Tradable Rights to Whales," in The Technology of Property Rights, ed. Terry L. Anderson and Peter J. Hill (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001).

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