NEWPORT, Ore. - A research team using DNA analysis has identified whale meat from 15 different endangered fin whales for sale in Japanese markets in 2006 and 2007, which are two more fin whales than the government of Japan reported killing under its scientific whaling program during the same period.
The official records track the number of whales killed through scientific hunting and as "bycatch" - usually through becoming entangled in fishing nets.
The researchers reported their findings at the scientific meeting of the International Whaling Commission this month in Santiago, Chile.
Scott Baker, a cetacean geneticist from Oregon State University, led the research team's study of whale meat purchased in Japanese markets. The team examined 99 whale products from those markets and identified meat from six baleen whale species, including humpback, fin, sei, Bryde's, North Pacific minke and Antarctic minke.
"We use methods similar to human forensic genetic studies," Baker said. "Individual whales can be identified by their unique genetic markers, much the same way that humans have identifiable genetic codes or DNA fingerprints. This advance in technology is giving us new insights into the number and species of whales and dolphins - many of which are endangered or threatened - sold in markets in some parts of the world."
Japan's whaling program has faced intense global scrutiny and criticism for killing whales for "scientific purposes." Some critics say the endeavor is a thinly veiled commercial operation operating under the guise of science and little data is shared with whale experts from other countries.
Baker, who is associate director of OSU's Marine Mammal Institute, located at the university's Hatfield Marine Science Center Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Ore., said other non-lethal methods of study can provide much of the relevant data needed to study endangered and threatened whale species.
The Japanese market study findings are similar to a study Baker published last year on whale meat sold in Korean markets, which suggested a higher number of whales sold in Korean markets than was reported to the International Whaling Commission.
In both cases, Baker said, the researchers sampled only a portion of the markets in each country during a small window of time - with gaps of weeks, or even months between surveys.
"Since the average market 'half-life' of whale meat is six weeks, at most, we should have found far fewer individuals - or the number of whales killed is actually much greater than is being reported," Baker said.
Though whaling is regulated, whales caught in Japanese and Korean fishing nets can be killed and sold as bycatch if officially reported. Economic incentives make such pursuits attractive, said Baker, who pointed out that individual whales are thought to fetch as much as $100,000.
Illegal, unregulated and unreported exploitation of whales and fish is not a new problem. Illegal whaling by the Soviet Union in the aftermath of World War II killed more than 48,000 humpback whales; only 3,000 of this total were included in the official reports to the International Whaling Commission. Dolphins and other whale species continue to be exploited without regulation or reporting in many countries, Baker pointed out.
"The incentive, obviously, is financial," Baker said. "The result of under-reporting whale mortality is not simply the decline of the species and their ability to sustain their populations - it is the increasing difficulty the situation creates for protecting these animals."
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