Monday, 6 January 2014

Paretian cetacean

Others see problems, I see solutions.

Problem the first: Japan wants to keep subsidising a dumb inefficient national whaling industry. As best I understand things, nobody really wants to eat whale meat and the industry would have just died. But, the rest of the world backed Japan into a corner where it would be embarrassing to stop doing it because they can't stop it without being seen to have lost this fight. So they keep subsidising it, the whaling boats keep going out, and everybody keeps going ahead with confrontational opposition methods that guarantee that Japan can't just cancel the whaling subsidies. And so a bunch of intelligent animals that would prefer not being killed continue to be killed for no particularly good purpose.

Problem the second: A bunch of intelligent animals keep attempting to commit suicide on New Zealand beaches. These whales seem pretty determined. Often, after their would-be rescuers float them out to sea, they just go and beach themselves again. They really seem to want to die.

In the first case, we undertake costly efforts to kill whales that want to live. In the second case, we undertake costly efforts to prevent whales that want to die from killing themselves.

And so here is my proposed solution.

BE IT RESOLVED THAT, henceforth, New Zealand will allow Japanese whaling research vessels access to suicidal New Zealand whales. For an annual fee sufficient to ensure that the Japanese whaling industry remains uneconomical and in need of continued Japanese subsidy, the Japanese whaling fleet can harpoon suicidal New Zealand whales, haul them out to sea where we can't see what's going on, then do whatever it is they do to them. If we haven't sufficient diversity in suicidal whale species, other countries with similarly suicidal whales may wish to join in.

IN EXCHANGE, Japan promises to cease all other whaling, since they'd have at least enough whales here to play with. The research vessels will also try to figure out why whales are killing themselves.

New Zealand and other countries get an end to objectionable forms of whaling. Japan gets to keep its whaling industry. Whales that want to live get to keep living. Whales that want to die are allowed to give their bodies up for science instead of winding up on beaches.

Sure, we'd need a few safeguards. For example, the maximum harvest shouldn't exceed what's currently taken to reduce the incentive to drive whales to suicide. And anything that looks like "let's do wonky things with sonar to make whales want to kill themselves" should reduce the quota limit.

Any reason this couldn't work?

Update: KiwiPollGuy raises some really good objections in comments; he knows far more about Japan than I do. I'll clarify things a bit. First off, I hardly think that "stupid" is the only reason behind whaling. I expect that it's an embedded cultural practice that has value for Japanese people even if they don't eat whale meat. The idea of seaside villages cutting up whale meat likely has the same romantic connotations for folks in Tokyo as the image of tiny Newfie fishing villages has for folks in Toronto, leading to public subsidy of lifestyles that are no longer economically sustainable. Canada was able to get away from some of this in the last twenty years - I understand that the 12/40 rule is now gone. But I've a hard time seeing Japan stopping the subsidies when everybody's yelling at them to end whaling. It might not be the only binding constraint, but it would be among them.

I am arguing that you could, in theory, maintain that whole basic deal by flipping the whaling ships from killing whales at sea to harvesting suicidal beaching whales. But it could be impracticable. I'd expect that beached whales go pong after a few days, and it might be impossible for whaling fleets to get there that quickly. Maybe this could be changed by having Hercules aircraft with air-mobile whalers and kit, ready to land at the nearest airport, truck over, and start to work while the Nisshin Maru trundles on over. We could even package it as a win for Japan rather than a concession - they get to flense whales with our permission in our waters and, depending on logistics, perhaps even on our beaches. I can't see how this is worse than a DoC guy shooting the whales instead. A more substantial constraint would be if the tasty kinds of whales aren't the kinds of whales that tend to go suicidal - if somebody who knows about whales could weigh in on that, I'd update. I know pilot whales keep killing themselves, but have no clue about their relative tastiness. I also don't know which other species have suicidal tendencies.

But KiwiPollGuy may be right that the NZ left would never go for it - that eating whales at all, even the suicidal and would-be-dead-anyway ones, is taken as evil. That would mean that even if NZ got behind a reduce-the-harm version of whaling, we'd get protesters on the beaches interfering with harvesting the suicidal whales. I can't see it working out without having the Greens on board.


  1. I suppose someone would want some sort off proof that the NZ whales really want to die, as opposed to dieing by mistake in a way that might confuse mere humans into mistaking their error for suicide.

  2. Which whale seems more likely to want to live: the one frolicking in the ocean, or the one that beaches itself repeatedly? Mistakes are possible, sure. But we'd surely be shifting to killing fewer whales that want to live by focusing whaling on the beachers...

  3. A few points:

    1) "nobody really wants to eat whale meat". Not true. If there is no demand then why is Japan importing 30ton per year from Norway and Iceland? ( (Japanese))

    2) "a bunch of intelligent animals". Citation needed on this one.

    3) "the rest of the world backed Japan into a corner where it would be embarrassing to stop doing it because they can't stop it without being seen to have lost this fight". Do you think that is why Japan continues to whale? You can't think of any other reasons?

    4) Geoffrey Palmer (as IWC Commisioner) tried to negotiate a similar solution a few years back, but it was leaked by Wikileaks ( and there was pretty huge backlash. The Greens (amongst others) were adamantly opposed, destroying any chance of a compromise. Many opponents of whaling are opposed to all whale consumption on ideological grounds, so a Pareto-improving solution is a non-starter.

  4. Thanks for those.

    1) I'd thought the Japanese were stockpiling tons of unwanted whale meat in warehouses as well. I suppose it's possible for both to be happening at the same time if the Minkes are tastier?

    2) I haven't a ready cite on whale intelligence, but I'd thought it pretty commonly accepted that whales are pretty bright. People > great apes > {whales / dolphins / parrots / octopus} > pigs / dogs > cows > sheep > {chicken / salmon}, no? Douglas Adams would put Mice and Dolphins at the top of the list...

    3) It can't be the only reason, but it does prevent solutions based on shouting at them.

    4) I totally didn't know about that. Idea seemed too good to have been original to me. The linked cable notes an allowable catch but doesn't tie it to the suicidal whales - had Palmer tried that and failed, or had the Greens gotten mad about basically running a quota system on all whaling rather than restricting whaling to suicidal whales?

    You're arguing the impossibility of the Paretian Cetacean; you could be right. Then again, sometimes it only seems really hard to help everybody and make everybody happy....

  5. Headline in local rag says that DOC is having to Euthanase many of the recently beached whales - a cost to the taxpayer. So your idea, Eric, if applied wisely, could save NZ Inc some $$ also.

  6. Eric,

    I see you've made an update, but also carrying on from my
    quick comment last night...

    Re: 1) Stockpiling isn't evidence of a lack of interest
    in consumption. See US strategic petroleum
    reserve, or Canadian strategic maple syrup reserve. Japan also has stockpiles of rice, currently about
    2 million metric tons or 4 months-worth of demand ( ). The whale meat stockpile, by contrast, typically
    sits at about 3000 tons, or 5 months-worth of demand (can't find recent update,
    but see
    for an old example).

    Re: 2) I agree the general ordering is pretty
    uncontroversial, but the magnitude of the gaps is surely relevent: humans
    (small gap) great apes (huge gap) other primates / whales / dolphins / parrots /
    octopus / pigs / dogs (small gap) etc. A
    lot of the behaviours given as "evidence" for cetacean intelligence
    (cooperation, coordination at hunting, communication, playfulness, etc.) are
    identical to those seen in meerkats. I'm
    not personally aware of any evidence for "intelligence" in cetaceans.

    Re: 4) I don't believe the IWC compromise proposal was
    tied to suicidal whales, but I can't imagine it would have made it any more
    feasible. An interesting proposal though :)

    Re: 3) This is the crux of the matter. You're right that whaling is not purely economically
    sustainable as-is (with current catch numbers, and in the aftermath of the 2011
    tsunami), but economics are only a small part of the motivation. Japanese whaling is partly consumption driven,
    partly culturally motivated, and partly about the science (yeah, really). It's a lot about other things as well. Beyond that I'm not really able to speculate
    in public.

  7. Point taken on 1.

    On 2, I'm hardly expert. But for present purposes, we have plenty of evidence that plenty of people think whales cute/smart enough to make killing them repugnant. Whether they really are or not is kinda beside the point. Flipping to killing "gonna die anyway suicidal whales" ought to placate the more rational parts of the "let's not kill whales" movement in the world in which whales are not intelligent, and avoids killing intelligent creatures that wish not to die in the world in which whales are intelligent. Either way, seems a good idea, if practicable.

    If you knew more about whether the kinds of whales that like killing themselves are the kinds of whales that are deemed tasty, that would be useful too!

  8. There is plenty of evidence for cetacean intelligence. Dolphins can recognised their own reflection as themself. We generally can't until 2 years old. There are not huge gaps

  9. How would this interact with Maori traditional uses of beached whales? (Which, by the way, is a good counterpoint to claims that any usage of post-beaching whales is taboo to the New Zealand left...)

  10. Great question; don't know well enough.