DNA shows Japanese ‘scientific’ whaling conceals illegal trade

Japan's so-called 'scientific' whaling is providing a cover for illegal hunting and trade in endangered whales, according to the results of DNA detective work presented at the International Whaling Commission (IWC).

Scientists from the University of Auckland, New Zealand, tested 120 pieces of meat, blubber and skin purchased in 1998 and 1999 from Japanese retail shops and fish markets. The tests uncovered products from three protected species – fin, sei and sperm whales, as well as other irregularities.

This is the first time meat from a sperm whale has been identified in market samples since the DNA survey work led by Dr. Scott Baker began in 1993. Sperm whale hunting by the Japanese officially ended in 1987.

Other market samples included four whale meat products from sei whales, two of them likely to have come from the Southern Hemisphere and two from the Northern. Sei whales were hunted in the North Atlantic until 1988 by Icelandic ‘scientific’ whaling operations, but the last permitted sei whaling in the southern hemisphere took place in 1979. The last fin whale hunt was in 1989, also under the guise of ‘scientific’ whaling by Iceland, but it has been illegal for Japan to import any whale products from Iceland since 1992.

“This survey has revealed a surprisingly high number of protected whales on sale in the Japanese markets,” said Vassili Papastavrou, a whale biologist for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), which funds the DNA work. “There is a loophole in international regulations that allows the Japanese to undertake so-called ‘scientific’ whaling and that hunt is acting as cover for this illegal trade in protected whales. Pro-conservation countries now need to get serious and act to stop this ‘scientific’ whaling charade.”

The research shows Korea’s protected minke whales are also turning up in Japanese markets. “Either Japan is wrong to claim that it kills few whales from the Korean population, or there is illegal trade. Whatever the case, something must be done before it is too late for Korea’s endangered minke whales,” said Papastavrou.

Japan is the only country that still conducts ‘scientific’ whaling. It hunts Southern Hemisphere and North Pacific minke whales, killing up to 540 animals each year.

The team of DNA scientists also found two samples labelled as whale that were actually horse meat, despite the luxury price tag on one of them of nearly $600 a kilo (60,000 yen per kilo).

IFAW’s Japanese anti-whaling campaigner, Naoko Funahashi, said, “The Japanese whaling industry, with the support of our government, is killing more and more whales, but they don’t take any serious measures to control the outlaw whaling and trade. They are themselves proving that commercial whaling can never be managed properly.”

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie