More Whales Please

I was struck by this quote in the paper cited in my last post:

The biosphere considered as a whole has managed to expand the amount of solar energy captured for metabolism to around 5%, limited by the nonuniform presence of key nutrients across the Earth’s surface — primarily fresh water, phosphorus, and nitrogen. Life on Earth is not free-energy-limited because, up until recently, it has not had the intelligence and mega-engineering to distribute Earth’s resources to all of the places solar energy happens to fall, and so it is, in most places, nutrient-limited. (more)

That reminded me of reading earlier this year about how whale poop was once a great nutrient distributor:

A couple of centuries ago, the southern seas were packed with baleen whales. Blue whales, the biggest creatures on Earth, were a hundred times more plentiful than they are today. Biologists couldn’t understand how whales could feed themselves in such an iron-poor environment. And now we may have an answer: Whales are extraordinary recyclers. What whales consume (which is a lot), they give back. (more)

It seems we should save (and expand) the whales because of their huge positive externality on other fish. If humans manage to increase the fraction of solar energy used by life on Earth, it will be primarily because of trade and transport. Transport gives us the ability to move lots of nutrients, and trade gives us the incentives to move them.

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  • Hedonic Treader

    However, trade does not give us the incentive to save let alone expand the whales.

    • James Donald

      Whales should be privatized like cattle and branded, or instead of branded, implanted with a transponder indicating their owner.

      That this is guaranteed to horrify anyone who says “save the whales” reveals that saving the whales is an expression of holiness and superior purity, unrelated to, and contemptuous of, the supposed utilitarian rationalizations for saving the whales.

      • Stephen Diamond

        Dumb comment, inasmuch as Robin called for saving the whales and (I’m confident) wouldn’t be at all “horrified” at your proposal.

      • James Donald

        That is a rationalization, A large part of what would otherwise be an externality would be captured by the individual who owned the whales.

        And if whales had an externality to fishermen, and not merely to other whales, which I much doubt, the owner of the whales could contract with those that owned the right to fish in certain areas in the same way as bee keepers contract with orchards.

        Of course that whales have an externality on ocean productivity is itself a rationalization, which rationalization the evidence fails to support. People want to believe it, just as they don’t want whales owned, branded, and herded.

        People who delight in trampling all over other people’s sacredness and purity beliefs don’t want to admit that that their own morals rest on sacredness and purity.

        If the sea and its creatures privatized, the alleged externality would be largely internalized

        And you will find yourself coming up with ever more clever explanations as to why it would not be internalized.

      • Hedonic Treader

        Branding causes direct suffering brain states, which are an obvious ethical negend. This is independent of any externalities and/or sacredness rationalization.

        Branding is a severe and obvious form of animal cruelty and should be illegal, period. No complex stories about rationalizations are required.

      • IMASBA

        People just don’t trust private interests with taking care of natural resources. Partially this is sentiment, which happens to be partially justified because whales aren’t sheep, they are very intelligent and that makes us uncomfortable with the idea of anyone owning them as property. Corporations also have a proven track record of not looking further ahead than their shareholders’ lifetimes (and why would they?) so there is a chance of some billionaires offering the whale owners more money to hunt whales (which again makes people uncomfortable because of the whales’ small number and intelligence) then the owners would make in 50 years of herding (btw, how you want to go about herding an intelligent species that has fixed migratory patterns is anyone’s guess.) And what if some activity causes the whales to dwindle to unrecoverable numbers in 50 years, with them going extinct in 300 years, a corporation wouldn’t handle that any better than a government.

        Now of course governments have their own problems with conservation, sentiment can make people too trusting of governments as well


    Humans are already “distributing” nutrients way more than we should. Current phosphates consumption (mainly for artificial fertilizer needed because of population growth in India and Africa, the Western appetite for way too much meat and the Asian refusal to eat potatoes) is unsustainable.

    As usual, the biosphere has mechanisms to distribute nutrients in a sustainable fashion and humans chose to ignore the warnings of scientists and messed up the system.

    • oldoddjobs

      Sustainable, sounds great. Humans should just kill themselves so that the biosphere can sustain the hell out of itself. Oops, there I go again ignoring the warnings of scientists.

    • Salem

      I wonder what you can possibly mean when you say that phosphate consumption is unsustainable. It’s not like the phosphorus atoms are being destroyed or fired out of the earth’s atmosphere. If I were cynical, I’d say it’s a statement that makes no claim on reality, and is merely a figleaf for your real statement, which is a condemnation of others for not sharing your food tastes.

      • IMASBA

        Good luck trying to sift phosphorus atoms from the ocean (that is where used phosphorous currently ends up) at a cost that food consumers can afford…

        Consumption is the difference between how much is produced (mined) and how much is recycled, we have to bring that down by using less of the stuff and recycling it closer to the source.

  • Stephen Diamond

    I’m not an economist, but it seems to me that whether we should save the whales must in part depend on cost.

    • IMASBA

      The true cost, not just the immediate cost without externalities and long term effects…

  • Daniel Carrier

    What’s the positive externality? The quote only suggests that they don’t so much consume nutrients as store them temporarily. It’s not like they actually produce iron.

    This assumes that wild fish have lives worth living. That should be investigated before we go to a lot of effort to increase fish populations. Although keeping the whales from going extinct in the meantime would be necessary if we want to have a choice later.

    • Stephen Diamond

      Silly me, having thought the point of increasing fish populations is human nutrition.

      • Hedonic Treader

        Yes. Of course, as soon as we have profitable technologies to circumvent this whole resource cycle, all the suffering brains should be removed from them.

        (You can still have fish and whale populations, but they would have fewer individuals.)

    • gwern

      > What’s the positive externality? The quote only suggests that they
      don’t so much consume nutrients as store them temporarily. It’s not like
      they actually produce iron.

      By the same logic, merchants can’t produce any wealth: ‘they don’t so much produce goods as store them temporarily; it’s not like they actually produce anything.’

      Of course, they do, since the value of goods depends on location. In this case, I believe the argument is that because ocean ecosystems are usually limited by a particular resource (Liebig’s barrel) and this resource almost always turns out to be *iron*, by moving iron from one part of the ocean where iron is not limiting to somewhere else which turns out to be iron-poor/iron-limited, the whales substantially increase the carrying capacity of one region without reducing that of the other. Like the attempts at geoengineering involving dumping iron dust in the Pacific Ocean:

      This gain would only be partially recaptured by any involved whale (The whales which actually make the difference are the ones which come in from outside the iron-poor region with a gut with a full load of iron-rich poop; the whales inside the region benefit but aren’t actually helping on the margin since they are merely recirculating existing iron stores), and that seems to fit being a positive externality: they’re creating the whale equivalent of wealth (tasty food) available to all whales and can only eat a bit of the ecosystem they help create.

      • Daniel Carrier

        In other words, they help distribute iron?

  • Michael H

    “It seems we should save (and expand) the whales because of their huge positive externality on other fish”.

    I’m going to be pedantic and observe that whales aren’t fish. Perhaps “externality on other maritime life” instead?

    • Stephen Diamond

      Robin was operating in near-mode, where whales are fish. The problem is resolved by simply dropping “other”; but in near-mode, unfortunately, more is better.