So what, finally, about those Western Grey Whales?

This is the conclusion to the series I have run recently on the fate of the Western Grey Whales off Sakhalin, and whether or not we should care about them. This was all prompted by an article by Richard Black on some esoteric arguments about whether some of the Sakhalin whales may actually be temporary visitors from the much larger population of Grey Whales in the Eastern Pacific, and the implications this discovery has for how they may be treated from a conservation perspective.

Such, apparently unexpected outcomes of conservation analysis and regulation are not as rare as one might expect. Global warming is shifting species ranges across national borders. When this first happens the new arrivals instantly become a rare species in their new country, and may be afforded all sorts of protections (and thus constraining businesses) as a result. Viewed globally this is nonsense since the vast majority of the population is elsewhere; so long as it is not globally endangered then there is no real reason to grant it extra protection in a country it has not historically called home.

So how did we get here? We start from a basic moral argument for conservation that is usually rooted in a love for nature, that assigns it some intrinsic value. Aesthetics and empathy for our mammalian cousins (except for some of the rodent class) often plays a big part. How many conservationists were converted to the cause by watching the likes of David Attenborough?

This, however, only serves to protect a few gems in national parks and other protected areas, and is not very scientific. So biologists have long talked about biodiversity, a measure of the degree to which wildlife found in a given place is both different from each other (many species) and different from elsewhere (unique). Biodiversity hotspots have become a major theme of conservation. It helps that many of these hotspots coincide with traditional views of conservation priorities, e.g. the lemurs on Madagascar, but not all such hotspots are so charismatic; it is unlikely that the East African Coastal Forests will ever attract huge numbers of tourists. More tellingly, biodiversity itself is an abstract concept; easy to relate to when marvelling at the lush and beautiful diversity on display in a tropical rain forest or coral reef, but much harder to grasp when, say, a new car park obliterates the last home of a hitherto undiscovered beetle.

So where do I stand?

I kicked this series of posts off with a poll. I asked you readers to select from a number of options:

Alas less than 10% of you bothered to vote. I guess I should be flattered that you are rather more interested in my opinion than in expressing your own (either that or you couldn’t care less either way). The votes were fairly evenly split except for the last option which received no votes, so it is difficult to draw any conclusions. I shall leave the poll open for a while longer and watch to see if anything interesting does come of it.

As for my position, it is this. I think it would be great if sufficient moral clarity existed in the world that the top arguments held sway. But that is not the case. Other moral arguments about the ‘rights’ to development, food and clean water, and to health and education, also command our attention, and often compete with conservation. Sometimes, as in this case, there is a direct trade-off, other times it is simply a matter of competing for scarce financial resources. Thus conservation must prioritise internally and compete with other causes externally for support. Such prioritisation requires careful, rational thinking which often takes us some distance from our purer, more emotive starting points.

First and foremost I am a conservationist, but I recognise that conservation must fit with the economic realities in which we find ourselves; people who argue it should be the other way around are simply being Utopian. It is possible, nay desirable, to change the rules of the game, e.g. with the introduction of natural capital accounting, but it is not feasible to change the game entirely.

Thus my preference, were it possible, would be to try to combine economic development (in this case drilling for oil and gas) to go ahead with appropriate regulation to minimise such negative impacts as could be mitigated cost-effectively. If that were not possible, and as I previously remarked, the situation in Russia is not encouraging in this respect, I would probably be prepared to sacrifice the sub-species, with the hope of achieving better conservation results elsewhere, unless the umbrella species argument were particularly compelling, which I do not believe to be the case, though I know far too little about the Sakhalin environment to know for sure. Finally I would challenge anyone who disagrees with me to pony up the cost to buy the rights to the Sakhalin oil and gas if they think it is so important.

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