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Property Rights and Whale Wars

Tags The EnvironmentFree MarketsInterventionismPrivate Property

03/18/2010Jeremiah Dyke

Property is that beautiful foundation from which libertarians approach conflicts. Accepting that the rights to property come through the rights of original homesteading, appropriation, and exchange eliminates the need to question motives or intentions in action. Without defined property rights, the public is left squabbling for some other rubric from which to judge action. The purpose of this article is to demonstrate the foolishness of this squabbling on the topic of whaling.

Only within the sphere of communal property could two vessels manage to collide in the vast openness of the Antarctic Ocean — an ocean of nearly 21 million square kilometers. Only within the sphere of communal property could such a collision leave all parties faultless.

The collision of the two vessels, the Japanese harpoon ship, Yushin Maru No. 2, and the whale-conservation Sea Shepherd ship, Bob Barker, is but another round in the many conflicts between whalers and antiwhaling conservationists. Each party maintains its innocence, and both parties sustain damages.

Whaling can be traced back to as early as 6000 BC. Yet, despite its long heritage, whaling is no longer the primary source of any nation's financial system. Past uses of whale typically revolved around illuminants in lamps and candles. It was industry, not animal ethics, that eventually replaced the whale-based illuminants with kerosene and petroleum (both of which burn longer, more cheaply, and without such a distasteful odor).

Despite this transition, 5 of the 13 great whales are on the endangered species list, and there is some evidence of whale extinction within certain geographical areas. By the late 1930s, more than 50,000 whales were killed annually, enough to alarm conservationists into pushing for a commission to preside over these issues.

The outcome was the International Whaling Commission (IWC). Although its membership is voluntary, the commission soon set forth a wide array of whaling quotas in order to protect whale stocks.

On the one hand, the United States acts as a membership financer to budding nations who are sympathetic to the ICW. On the other, the United States also bullies those unsympathetic to the ICW by threatening to ban their various fish imports. Thus, many countries that have no investment in whale conservation will still side with the United States on this issue.

Indeed, according to a paper by Anthony Matera, "The current moratorium on whaling, instituted by the International Whaling Commission (IWC), continues to restrict the rights of these countries to whale, even though the moratorium's original purpose, a recovery in whale stocks, has been achieved."[1]

It has also been shown that whale domestication and breeding can replenish depleted whale stocks without the use of whaling quotas or other IWC measures. So why is there still a vacancy in this market? Why has no individual or company entered the market to fill the void in whale supply? The reason is clear — regulation. According to the IWC, countries are only permitted

to harvest whales for scientific research and sustenance use for approved communities. Japan and Iceland both maintain scientific research programs.… [Yet] members of the commission have increasingly lobbied for the suspension or reduction of these research programs, maintaining that whale harvesting does not address any critically important research needs.

Therefore, we are left with a void in the market in exchange for a cluster of normative goals. Conservationists would rather regress into infinite dialogue over what "should be" rather than embrace the solution of privatization.

Conservationists are actually gambling with the whales' prospects of survival by concentrating their efforts on a war against whaling, instead of embracing solutions to the problem of supply, such as whale breeding.

Simply limiting the supply of whales only increases the price per unit of whale on the market. Fisherman who would normally seek other ocean inhabitants may actually be enticed to hunt whales, instead of fish, by the new, inflated price. Thus, like our abysmal record in attempting to battle the supply of illegal drugs,[2] our whaling efforts only help solidify the elementary economic knowledge that you cannot wage a war on supply!

Returning to our original story of the recent collision between antiwhaling conservationists and their fishing/science counterparts, we begin to understand why organizations like the US-based Sea Shepherd have done so little to deter whaling off the coast of Antarctica.

The governments of New Zealand and Australia, who have jurisdiction over the waters in which this crash took place, have opted not to rule in favor of either party, instead urging each group to take caution and remain civil.

Remain civil?

Can you imagine such a scenario anywhere else? Can you imagine dog poachers roaming our backyards in search of pets to use for science or industry? Even if we can imagine such a silly scenario, we could never imagine the adjudicator of such a conflict merely urging each party to "remain civil." One of the parties is surely at fault!

It is, therefore, legal consequences that prevent backyard dog poaching, but it is ownership that gives the authority to inflict such consequences. It is the ownership of the dog and the backyard that allow one to judge that a crime has been committed. This silly scenario does not occur for the simple reason that property rights are better defined in backyards; it is only in absence of defined property rights that these vessels could collide in the vast openness of the sea without either being identified as the aggressor.


[1] Matera, Anthony. "Whale Quotas: A Market-Based Solution to the Whaling Controversy." Georgetown International Environmental Law Review.

[2] Of which we cannot even keep out of our prisons or jails


Contact Jeremiah Dyke

Jeremiah Dyke is a math teacher who hails free markets and freedom of choice.