Thursday, June 05, 2008

Rent Seek the Whales

From CNN, a tale of of rent-seeking:
By the early 20th century, their numbers were so depleted that in 1935, hunting was banned. Yet 73 years later, the species has not bounced back.
What a shocker, the regulation didn't fix the tragedy of the commons. The article reveals there are an estimated 300 remaining whales, and then
That measure is a proposal from U.S. government scientists to require commercial ships to slow to 10 knots inside a 30-mile "bubble" near ports where and when these whales are migrating. Right now, experts say, commercial ships kill about two North Atlantic right whales every year.
"We think that more animals are being killed than are being born, and there are a couple of main sources of human-caused mortality that we are trying to reduce," said Jim Lecky, director of the Office of Protected Resources at the National Marine Fisheries Service.
What? 300 whales can't produce more than 2 children in a year?
Many in the shipping industry oppose the speed limit, saying it would be too costly. A federal study concluded that slowing the ships near the whales will cost shipping companies about $112 million, or less than 1 percent of the $340 billion East Coast shipping industry income.
One percent, is a big deal, people change their behavior all the time to save one percent.
Not all shipping companies oppose the rule. A smaller industry group, Chamber Shipping of America, filed a document with the federal government saying, "Our members believe the economic impacts associated with the proposed rule ... are well worth the benefits to preserving this most endangered species."
What a surprise! The group composed of what I'm guessing is the smaller shipping companies that are less likely to have giant fast vessels, are ok with their larger faster competitors having to slow down. Is the possibility of saving two whales a year worth $112 million? Would it not be cheaper to allow these firms to continue their speed and instead start an insemination program or breed at least two in captivity? Couldn't these scientists work on a device that emits a noise that scares these whales away upon their approach?

Perhaps Bryce will explain in the comments why these alternative solutions are or are not reasonable. At least an explanation of why these apparently lazy creatures are hell bent on suicide. By the way, one of the best episodes of Futurama ever made was "300 Big Boys," which features a disgruntled whale biologist, fiscal stimulus plans, rapid inflation, and actual "voodoo" economists.


Unknown said...

Is anyone here a Marine Biologist!?

These giant fish



are too big to realistically be kept in captivity (55 feet long, 70 tons), which makes any sort of artificial reproductive technology basically impossible. Insemination programs are very difficult to establish even in animals readily held in captivity.

The sound emission would be difficult too, as any sound strong enough to be heard from a decent distance could potnetially cause a lot of damage (like the sonar debate going on in California). And if the noise of a huge oncoming ship isn't enough to spur the whales into activity, maybe sound isn't the answer. They're like armadillos of the sea, evidently

The whales don't reach breeding age until 9 or 10 and can only have one calf a year, so if a large proportion of the population is old and young, or if calf mortality is high than I suppose breeding rate would be low. But not 2 per year. If you read Jim Lecky's quote, he says that "more animals are being killed [in total] than are being born, and there are a couple of main sources of human-caused mortality that we are trying to reduce [ship collisions being one of them]."

I added the brackets for clarification.

He's talking about all whale deaths vs. all whale births and the importance of reducing mortality wherever possible.

Here's some more info on the topic from NOAA, the government agency that deals with the issue:

It looks like the governemnt has tried to shift traffic as well as track the whales and report the locations to oncoming ships.

After a whole 5 minutes of thought, it would seem that real-time tracking of the whales with GPS and mandatory ship reporting might be the best solution. If the whales aren't nearby, the ships can plow through. If the whales are nearby, then the ship has to detour 10 or 20 miles. Still a loss of money, but less than slowing all ships down, I would think.

You hit on the real issue however:

"Is the possibility of saving two whales a year worth $112 million?"

Replace 'two whales' with 'an entire species' and many companies and individuals would still answer no. In my opinion, some things transcend monetary value, biodiversity being one of them. Which is why I'm a Biologist and not an Economist.

Coincidentally, the other Biologist hired along with me at Redlands is a whale physiologist. Maybe I'll send her the link. She might actually be able to talk competently on the issue...

Justin M Ross said...

I like the GPS idea, that seems like a much more cost effective solution. It seems there are many potential solutions that creative people can come up with that would be much more effective and less costly than a blunt regulation like "drive slow." We have found many property rights solutions to saving many species (Bison Burgers, anyone?), I doubt these righteous whales would be any different even if there is no obvious solution this minute.

The story of interest to me is the rent-seeking aspect to it. Clearly the smaller firms don't want the creative/effective solutions. They want the blunt regulation that makes it easier for them to compete. Predictably, these environmental and species laws become tools for these types of firms to force us to even ask the question is species x worth $y, in an effort to undermine their competitors.