Study: Tests show illegal whale meat trade in Asia

Maideline Sanchez

From the Associated Press by Jeff Barnard
GRANTS PASS, Ore. – DNA testing of whale meat from a restaurant in Seoul, South Korea, indicates that some of it came from Japan, scientists said Wednesday, offering evidence of an illegal international trade in whale meat from Japan’s scientific whaling program.

Scientists from Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport performed the tests as part of a project monitoring sources of whale meat offered for sale since 1993.

The peer-reviewed study appeared in Wednesday’s edition of the journal Biology Letters.

The study comes as the International Whaling Commission is considering legitimizing limited commercial whaling as a way of controlling it. Environmentalists fear that could open the door to more illegal trade.

Japan’s annual whale hunt is allowed by the commission as a scientific program, but opponents call it a cover for commercial whaling, which has been banned since 1986. Japan hunts hundreds of mostly minke whales, which are not an endangered species. Whale meat not used for study is sold for consumption in Japan, but international sales are banned.

The South Pacific Whale Research Consortium in New Zealand estimates 3,000 whales are killed for their meat each year.

“Since the international moratorium, it has been assumed that there is no international trade in whale products,” said Scott Baker, associate director of OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute and lead author of the study, in a written statement. “But when products from the same whale are sold in Japan in 2007 and in Korea in 2009, it suggests that international trade, though illegal, is still an issue.”

The International Whaling Commission meets again starting May 29 in Morocco and will consider allowing 1,400 gray whales to be hunted over the next decade.

Douglas DeMaster, the U.S. delegation’s deputy commissioner, said an advisory panel is developing recommendations on resolving the stalemate between nations over commercial whaling.

President Barack Obama’s administration is waiting to see the recommendations before taking a position, but DNA testing and an international registry of whale meat DNA, as suggested by the authors of the study, would be key to enforcement of controls on international trade, DeMaster said.

The study looked at 13 pieces of mixed whale meat sashimi purchased from an unnamed restaurant in Seoul, South Korea, during two visits in 2009. Four were from an Antarctic minke whale, four from a sei whale, three from a North Pacific minke whale, one from a fin whale and one from a Risso’s dolphin.

The species echoed those taken by Japan’s scientific whaling program, particularly the Antarctic minke whale, Baker said. To settle the question, he has asked Japan for access to records from the whaling program.

“It basically confirms these products are leaking out of the scientific whaling operating in Japan,” said Steve Palumbi, professor of biology at Stanford University and director of the Hopkins Marine Station at Monterey, Calif.

“That’s really important because although people have been very worried about scientific whaling, because there’s not much science involved, the other part of it is those whales are supposed to be for domestic consumption only,” added Palumbi, who was not part of the study. “Any international movement of them is prohibited.”

The authors said it was unlikely that the sei whale, the Antarctic minke whale and the fin whale came from bycatch from South Korean fishermen, which is legal. No sei whales have been reported as bycatch in 13 years of records submitted by South Korea to the International Whaling Commission, the study said. The Antarctic minke whale is not found in the Northern Hemisphere.

Testing showed the fin whale meat likely came from the same fin whale offered for sale at a Japanese market in 2007, which the scientists also tested.

The study also detailed DNA testing of whale meat that led The Hump sushi restaurant in Santa Monica, Calif., to close last month. The restaurant and a sushi chef were charged with illegally selling an endangered species product.

Taryn Kiekow, staff attorney for Natural Resources Defense Council, said the group is “very worried” that even limited commercial whaling would open the door to illegal trade in whale meat.