Hoping to defuse a three-decade feud over whale hunting, three academics are making an audacious proposal: The world should put a price on killing whales and allow conservationists and whalers alike to bid on the right to take them.

Calling it “a market that would be economically, ecologically and socially viable for whalers and whales alike,” an economist and two marine scientists suggested in a commentary published Wednesday by the journal Nature that the International Whaling Commission (IWC) could allocate catch quotas between whaling and anti-whaling nations while holding some back for an open auction.

The proposal is attracting interest from Obama administration officials as well as some environmentalists, who have become frustrated by the ongoing impasse over how to enforce a global whaling moratorium rejected by Japan, Iceland and Norway.

Over the past three years, nearly 2,000 whales on average have been killed annually by Japan, Iceland and Norway, along with aboriginal groups in Denmark, Russia and the United States. That’s more than double the yearly toll in the 1990s.

Both the Obama and the George W. Bush administrations sought to forge a global deal that would have allowed whaling nations to hunt whales legally as long as they curbed their catch. Japan takes about 1,000 whales a year for “scientific purposes,” while Norway and Iceland take about 600 annually between them.

But those efforts floundered in 2010, leaving conservationists and whale hunters still divided on how to regulate whaling.

Christopher Costello, the paper’s lead author, called the current system “totally ineffective” because “everyone thinks they either have a right to whale or let whales live.”

“Somehow you have to come up with a way to allocate whales between those two visions,” said Costello, a professor of natural resource economics at the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “The one thing we’re pretty darn sure of is this program will reduce the number of whales killed, and the whalers will voluntary opt into the program. Both sides have something to gain, and fewer whales will be killed.”

Under the “whale-conservation market” outlined by Costello and his two co-authors, Bren School Dean Steven Gaines and Arizona State University ecologist Leah R. Gerber, all IWC members would receive allowances to hunt whales at “sustainable harvest levels” and have the option of harvesting their quotas, holding on to them for a year or permanently retiring them. Some shares would be auctioned off, with the proceeds going to conservation efforts, and all allowances would be tradeable in a global market.

Robert N. Stavins, director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, said the researchers are proposing the same sort of catch share system that has been used successfully in some U.S. fisheries as well as many overseas.

If the world could devise a way to monitor and enforce these whaling quotas, Stavins wrote in an e-mail, it could help keep whale hunting in check. “The problem is not economic or biological, but political.”

Brett Jenks, chief executive of the Arlington-based conservation group RARE, wrote in an e-mail that while putting a price on whales will spur “a heated debate” between ethicists and pragmatists, the trading system reflects the same rationale as ecotourism.

“What I know is that conservationists tend to lose when battling only on moral grounds, and in this case, even the most fervent whale advocate must recognize that something needs to change,” Jenks wrote. “Costello, Gerber and Gaines are simply saying, why not let the value of whales help save them?” 

Some environmentalists, however, attacked the plan for undermining the current whaling ban. Greenpeace whales campaigner Phil Kline said it would be impossible to distinguish between legal and illegal hunting if whaling were legalized again: “It would be safe to assume illegal whaling would flourish if a legal whaling trade was set up.”

And Patrick Ramage, director of the global whale program of International Fund for Animal Welfare, wrote in an e-mail, “While it may make sense in the classroom, it ignores the fact that commercial whaling has been banned since 1986 and that putting a price on the head of whale species in 2012 does not promote their conservation, it compromises it.”

Monica Medina, U.S. commissioner to the IWC, said in a statement that for 2012, the administration is “fully committed to retaining the moratorium on commercial whaling and to securing the subsistence quota for our indigenous whalers.”

“We agree with the authors that it would be best to end commercial whaling and we would like to break the deadlock over this issue at the IWC, however all previous efforts to do that have unfortunately failed,” said Medina, who also serves as principal deputy undersecretary for oceans and atmosphere at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

Officials from Japan and Iceland declined to comment on the proposal.

The idea of a market-based trading system for commercial whaling is not unprecedented — a Canadian natural resources professor mentioned it in 1982, and a Virginia economist offered a more detailed scenario a decade ago.

Stanford University marine biologist Stephen Palumbi, who has used genetic analysis to estimate whale species’ abundance before being targeted by humans, called the idea a “great proposal” in part because “it so brazenly ignores the last five decades of useless squabbling that has embroiled the IWC.”

“It is like a new general manager of a losing football team coming in and changing the rules without any consideration of past sniping or petty bickering,” Palumbi said, although he warned that it might fail because “it runs afoul of a lot of the enshrined rights that a lot of the IWC nations have carved out for themselves.”

David Feldman, a professor of economics at the College of William and Mary who met with Japanese officials in 2001 after outlining his own market-based whale quota system, wrote in an e-mail of the new proposal, “The devil is in the details of proposals like this, and these authors have captured many of the complexities.”

While it would take further negotiations to forge a compromise, Feldman wrote, both whaling and anti-whaling nations would be better off moving to tradeable allowances: “The dance between the two sides risks destroying the IWC entirely, which would be a catastrophe for many whale species.”