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Whales and fisheries – "standing up to Japan", or managing/enclosing the commons?

Dave Neiwert, a thoughtful voice on the left and with an experienced, informed view on America’s right-wing racist fringe, has a rather confused post up on whaling on his blog, Orcinushttp://dneiwert.blogspot.com/2008/02/standing-up-to-japan.html.

Neiwert sends a mixed message by saying we need to “stand up to Japan”, by prominently posting recent footage of a whale’s death struggles at the hands of Japan’s “scientific” whaling fleet, and then by calling for the need to build bridges and networks over physical confrontation – but doesn’t really begin to explain why whales have become so politicized or the best way to turn deadlock into a desperately needed victory for management of the ocean commons

Copied below are my comments to his post (edited and emphasis added):

Gravatar Dave, with you and others thoughtlessly feeding the political grandstanding, it’s hard to see how the bridge- and coalition-building that is needed to tackle whaling – or the much more serious and pressing global fisheries – issues is ever going to get off the ground.

As others have noted, the Japanese came late in the whaling game, mainly after WWII (with US encouragement) and after the stocks were already starting to crash after a 150 years of western industrialized whaling pressure.

The Japanese persist in pelagic whaling [which is obviously non-traditional] despite the damage it does to their international reputation and long-term national interests because Westerners have done a great job of stiffening the spines of conservative politicians – so much so that while Japan’s private industry has completely abandoned the hunt, whaling persists as a wholly government-owned (and loss-making) endeavor!

Have you ever spent any time wonder WHY we care so much more about a Japan’s ‘scientific’ catch of a few whales now (which make no noticeable impact on growing populations, and a return to commercialized whaling under the IWC nowhere to be seen) than we do about the millions of very intelligent pigs, and less intelligent cattle etc. that we slaughter annually? The answer is simple, of course – though we should care about how humanely animals are killed to satisfy our wants, we have our greatest political battles over resources that NOBODY owns and for which unrestrained take can obviously imperil their very existence and lead to extinction. Because there are no ownership rights, political action has been needed.

But politics may often simply feed rancor and provide opportunities for grandstanding by politicians and others interested in protecting or using the resource – at our long-term detriment. Japan should be an obvious ally in preventing the crashing of global fisheries and ensuring their sustainability, but it lets itself be caught up in this emotional nonsense. So while environmentalists should care about building coalitions to rationally manage the oceans as a whole, they choose instead to fight what should be one of their greatest natural allies – a nation which ought to care greatly about the sustainability of the fish harvests they consume – because the partisan battles provide such a rush and keep those contributions rolling in.

There are obvious solutions on whales, that would allow some take of abundant species while protecting others. Establishing property rights of the kind that are now being seen as the solution for managing fisheries (‘catch shares’ or ITQs) is one, and one that would allow environmentalists to directly express their preferences by owning and managing their own stocks, and buying rights from others.

But it’s time to start realizing that the current terms of discussion about whales are not only unproductive, but actually imperil much more important issues about fisheries.

  1. February 18th, 2008 at 07:59 | #1

    David, many thanks for your comments.

    I hope you’ll give me a holler the next time there is whaling event in Tokyo. I can be reached at my email address noted here: http://mises.org/Community/members/TokyoTom.aspx.

    I hope that a path ahead can be found within the IWC and relatively soon, but in any case I don’t expect Japan to walk away from the IWC, unless they are first prepared for real heat in their relationship with the US.

    I think all parties in this mess deserve blame, including the US, for failure to exercise leadership. However, the fact that it is thoroughly politicized is not a surprise, and is of course what is the principal stumbling block to progress.

    Politicization is a natural consequence when resources do not have clear private (or long-established community) owners. In these cases, governments become proxy battlegrounds for expressing one’s preferences, as the lack of any ownership makes it impossible for parties with differing interests to express those interests via private or market transactions. This often deteriorates into partisan, zero-sum battles. For some of the enviros, this deadlock allows a simplified, black-white grandstanding that helps to keep the flow of donations coming; likewise, in Japan and other whaling nations I suspect that there is no small political hay that is made by standing firm against those radical enviros who would try to dictate how Japan and others should use the oceans’s resources.

    While a particular possible solution such as ITQs can be discussed later, I think that both sides need to better understand the institutional factors that underlies the present rather sick dynamics.



  2. February 17th, 2008 at 07:04 | #2

    Hi Tom,

    Thanks for letting me know about your post via my blog.

    I totally agree with your final statement about whaling distracting us all from much more important issues.

    I have been and remain skeptical that (self-declared) environmentalists would be happy with ITQs being applied to whales. They want to control what other people do, not just look after their own property.

    The frustrating thing with whaling is that the environmentalists could get over it today, if only they had the will to do so. A recent article on the Pew’s Tokyo Whale Symposium noted that the chair of the meeting thought it was important that the whaling issue be brought to a conclusion, apparently (according to what I read in the paper) because the environmentalists need to free their resources up to focus on other important issues.

    I say: So, swallow your pride and do it. Blaming whaling people and their sympathizers for dragging it out is ridiculous as sustainable whaling is quite acceptable from a conservation point of view. Which makes me think – if it’s not for conservation that they aren’t spending these resources on other “issues”, perhaps it’s actually a good thing that whaling alone is a scapegoat.

    So unfortunately I think the IWC has too many political problems as it is without it being complicated further by ITQ discussions. Once it’s solved it’s fundamental problem – the disagreement about whether taking whales is OK or not – then ITQs could indeed by a good talking point.

    My prediction is that the IWC will become entirely irrelevant before that happens however. Maybe a replacement organization (of whalers) will consider ITQs though.

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