One element of negotiations now under way to try to reduce the number of whales killed is the proposed creation of a central registry of whale DNA to improve efforts to track whale populations and monitor the international trade in whale meat.
Such tracking is already being conducted on a limited scale by academic researchers and the makers of the Oscar-winning documentary “The Cove.” These researchers, using hidden cameras and sophisticated DNA analysis, uncovered the illegal sale of whale meat at a Santa Monica restaurant and at a sushi restaurant in Seoul.
They found that the meat sold at The Hump in Santa Monica, which has since closed, came from a sei whale, probably one taken in the North Pacific under Japan’s so-called scientific whaling program.
A mixed plate of whale sashimi sold at the Seoul restaurant came from an Antarctic minke whale, a sei whale, a North Pacific minke, a fin whale and a Risso’s dolphin, the researchers found.
Only the Japanese have killed sei whales, found in waters surrounding Japan, since the imposition of an international whaling moratorium in 1986.
“This underscores the very real problem of the illegal international trade of whale meat products,” said Scott Baker, associate director of the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University.
Dr. Baker said the samples taken from the Santa Monica restaurant could not conclusively be linked to an individual whale because the Japanese
government does not share genetic information on the whales it harvests.
In a paper published Wednesday in the British academic journal Biology Letters, Dr. Baker and his co-authors, including “The Cove” filmmakers, call on Japan to share the DNA information on the roughly 1,000 whales it kills each year.
“Our ability to use genetics as a tool to monitor whale populations around the world has advanced significantly over the past few years, but unless we have access to all of the data — including those whales killed under Japan’s scientific whaling — we cannot provide resource managers with the best possible science,” Dr. Baker said.
Investigators from the Korean Federation of Environmental Movements and Seoul National University helped identify the types of marine animals served at the Korean sushi restaurant. One sample, from a fin whale, genetically matched meat purchased in Japanese markets in 2007, strongly suggesting it came from the same whale, Dr. Baker said.
“Likewise,” he said, “the Antarctic minke whale is not found in Korean waters, but it is hunted by Japan’s controversial scientific whaling program in the Antarctic. How did it show up in a restaurant in Seoul?”
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