Science

Sashimi DNA suggests illegal whale meat trade

A genetic analysis of sashimi served in Los Angeles and Seoul restaurants has uncovered an apparent illegal trade in meat from whales, likely from those killed in Japan's controversial scientific whaling program.

A genetic analysis of sashimi served in Los Angeles and Seoul restaurants has uncovered an apparent illegal trade in whale meat, likely from those killed in Japan's controversial scientific whaling program.

A team of Oregon State University scientists, documentary filmmakers and environmental advocates said Tuesday they conducted their analysis at a prominent Los Angeles sushi restaurant in October 2009.

They say they found that the strips of raw meat purchased by filmmakers of the Oscar-winning documentary The Cove came from a sei whale — likely from Japanese scientific whaling.

"The sequences were identical to sei whale products that had previously been purchased in Japan in 2007 and 2008, which means they not only came from the same area of the ocean — but possibly from the same distinct population," Scott Baker, associate director of the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University, said in a release.

"And since the [International Whaling Commission's 1986] moratorium on commercial hunting, there has been no other known source of sei whales available commercially other than in Japan," Baker added.

After their DNA analysis, the researchers turned over the samples to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's law enforcement division.  In March, federal prosecutors filed a criminal complaint against the restaurant, which since has closed.

Results of the study were published Tuesday in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters.

Japan's scientific program kills as many as 1,000 whales a year and is an allowed exception to the International Whaling Commission's 1986 ban on commercial whaling.

The government says its science research program gathers data on whale numbers, what they eat, how they move between food patches and how they travel to and from their breeding grounds in the central Pacific.

Critics say it's not necessary to kill the animals to gather that data, and that the scientific program is in fact a front for commercial whaling, with the whale meat sold for consumption.

It is difficult to link specific samples of whale meat to animals killed in Japan's whaling program, however. The Japanese government does not release genetic identity records for the animals.

In their paper, Baker and his co-authors call for Japan to share its DNA register of whales taken from its whaling program and bycatch whaling.

"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," Baker said.

The paper's authors also report on 13 whale products served at a sushi restaurant in Seoul, South Korea, during two 2009 visits.

The sushi was part of a mixed plate of whale sashimi, and genetic testing found that four of the products were from an Antarctic minke whale, four were from a sei whale, three were from a North Pacific minke whale, one was from a fin whale, and one was from a Risso's dolphin.

The DNA profile of the fin whale meat from the Seoul restaurant genetically matched products purchased by Baker's colleague, Naoko Funahashi, in Japanese markets in 2007 — suggesting it came from the same whale.

With files from The Associated Press

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