Common Tragedies

Thoughts on Environmental Economics

The Law(lessness) of the Sea

Posted by Rich Sweeney on November 6, 2007

Much has been written of late about the Law of the Sea Treaty (MR, CS Monitor, Matthew Yglesias, NYTimes). These commentaries have tended to focus on the potential navigational and natural resource discovery implications, which are probably the main issues of contention. The New Yorker, however, ran an odd but fascinating piece on a different sort of conflict that has resulted from the current suboptimal governance of our planet’s waters: the rise of vigilante environmental pirates.


Just as the international community never really decided how to treat the territorial and navigational claims on international waters, it also failed to come to a consensus on whaling in these waters. Thus, while the International Whaling Commission (IWC) has been in place since 1946, and while a moratorium on commercial whaling has been in place since the 1980s, many species of whale are on the verge of extinction. That’s because with no clearly defined property rights or enforcements mechanisms in place, countries like Japan and Iceland continually ignore the IWCs claims. As we’ve mentioned here before, fisheries are a classic example of a ToC. Since the oceans are non-excludable and whales are a rival good, and the private cost of whaling is below the social cost. Thus the market outcome is over-whaling.

Enter Paul Watson, captain of the the Farley Mowat and member of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. I highly recommend reading the actual article, but in order to make my point (yes, I have one) I’ll need to briefly summarize. Paul is a lifelong uber-conservationist (he was a founding member of Greenpeace but was later ostracized for his extreme views), who now commands a small private navy which chases whaling boats around the world. Watson believes that the Japanese are breaking the law by ignoring the commercial fishing moratorium. Since the IWC and the international community refuse to enforce or even clarify these rules, Watson and his navy have decided to take matters into their own hands.

Which brings me to Al Gore (that’s right, Al Gore). His work on climate change was largely derided in the conservative media as not being sufficient to merit the Nobel Peace Prize. After all, telling people to drive hybrids hardly seems on par with leading South Africa out of apartheid. Yet as the quirky case of The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society reveals, society’s failure to manage public goods can lead to real conflict. You have two parties, the environmentalists and the whalers (or possibly more aptly, whale meat eaters), competing for a finite resource, with absolutely no market recourse or government involvement. The result is violence. Clearly we’re along way from this, but it’s not impossible to extend this example to the climate change debate. Failing to regulate GHG emissions could, at some point, create a similar situation, pitting energy consumers against flood or drought victims, for example. Needless to say the resulting violence could be catastrophic.

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One Response to “The Law(lessness) of the Sea”

  1. Finally. I knew eventually my work and love of pirates would coincide. If I were Paul Watson, I’d call myself Greenbeard. Oh, the wit.

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