Scientists warn of emerging form of unregulated whaling in Asia

AP Photo/IFAW/File
A minke whale surfaces in the Pacific. Marine scientists warn that South Korea and Japan may be taking more minke whales than they are officially reporting, a result of laws in those countries that allow whales snagged as by-catch to be sold commercially. The results are based on DNA analysis of randomly selected containers of whale meat.

It's tough being a whale these days.

The International Whaling Commission has just wrapped up its annual meeting in Portugal with a whaling ban still intact, but with fissures deepening between the save-the-whales crowd and countries such as Japan, which wants to see commercial whaling reinstated, at least on a limited basis.

It's enough to prompt the commission's new chairman to suggest that the 53-year-old organization may need to rethink its purpose. Cristian Maquieira, the new chairman, told the Associated Press:

"We have to re-establish a consensus on what the IWC is and should do, and there are at least two contradictory perceptions to answer that question."

And along comes a new study suggesting that Japan's fishing operations are taking far more minke whales a year as by-catch than the Japanese government is officially reporting. Based on DNA samples taken from commercially sold whale meat, a team from Oregon State University and the University of California at Irvine estimate that by-catch takes in 150 whales a year on average -- about the same number the Japanese government officially acknowledges taking in its own scientific whaling program.

Researchers suspect the high numbers of minke by-catch may be more than accidental. Japan and South Korea are the only two IWC members that allow whales snagged as by-catch to be sold commercially.

Adult minkes can fetch upwards of $100,000 apiece, according to Scott Baker, associate director of Oregon State's Marine Mammal Institute, who led the study. With that kind of "green" as a lure, "you have to wonder how many of these whales are in fact killed intentionally."

The study, which has been accepted for publication in the journal Animal Conservation, focuses on two species of minke whales -- species that are virtually identical to the eye, but not to DNA analysis. The by-catch problem appears to center on a species that tends to hug the coast, and so gets caught in vast fishing nets set out there.

In theory, these populations are protected through international agreements.

Indeed, Japan is interested in beginning commercial whaling along its coast. Yet for all the "research" the country has conducted on whales, no reliable estimates exist for the size of the populations around the islands. So no one has a good baseline from which to try to manage the minke stocks, Dr. Baker said during a phone chat.

He and his colleagues note that any international monitoring for compliance is tough because Japan so far resists making its genetic data base for whales available. Currently, Baker says, DNA techniques can tell you what type of whale has ended up in a tin. But without access to the full DNA data base, which bears information on individual whales that have been harvested, enforcement is tough. Presumably if DNA analysis identifies whale meat whose genetic information is not in the data base, you've got evidence for unregulated or unreported whaling.

The team recommends that Japan make those data available, perhaps at a central repository at the IWC. And it recommends that thorough surveys begin -- including gathering genetic information on the whales -- to better understand what's really out there.

"We think this stock is under considerable threat," Baker says. "It would be pretty tragic to have a stock go essentially extinct or become locally extirpated while there's presumably a moratorium on whaling. But that is what may well be occurring."

Oh yes, and Baker and his colleague urge that when gathering the DNA from the whales, make sure it comes from tissue samples from living whales, and not from whales killed for this "scientific" purpose.

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