A study released Wednesday offers evidence that whale meat from Japan is illegally being served at sushi restaurants elsewhere, including one in South Korea last year.
Scientists from Oregon State University's Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport performed DNA tests on whale as part of a project monitoring sources of whale meat offered for sale since 1993. The peer-reviewed study appeared in Wednesday's edition of the journal Biology Letters.
The findings show that whale meat from Japan's scientific whaling program is becoming part of an illegal international trade — and ending up on diners' plates.
Meanwhile, the International Whaling Commission is considering legitimizing limited commercial whaling as a way of controlling it. Environmentalists fear that could open the door to more illegal trade.
Japan's annual whale hunt is allowed by the commission as a scientific program, but opponents call it a cover for commercial whaling, which has been banned since 1986. Whale meat not used for study is sold for consumption in Japan, but international sales are banned.
The South Pacific Whale Research Consortium in New Zealand estimates 3,000 whales are killed for their meat each year.
Findings suggest international trade
"Since the international moratorium, it has been assumed that there is no international trade in whale products," said Scott Baker, associate director of OSU's Marine Mammal Institute and lead author of the study, in a written statement. "But when products from the same whale are sold in Japan in 2007 and in Korea in 2009, it suggests that international trade, though illegal, is still an issue."
The study looked at 13 pieces of mixed whale meat sashimi purchased from an unnamed restaurant in Seoul, South Korea last year. Four were from an Antarctic minke whale, four from a sei whale, three from a North Pacific minke whale, one from a fin whale and one from a Risso's dolphin.
The species echoed those taken by Japan's scientific whaling program, particularly the Antarctic minke whale, Baker said.
"It basically confirms these products are leaking out of the scientific whaling operating in Japan," said Steve Palumbi, professor of biology at Stanford University and director of the Hopkins Marine Station at Monterey, Calif. He was not part of the study.
The authors said it was unlikely that the sei whale, the Antarctic minke whale and the fin whale came from bycatch from South Korean fishermen, which is legal. No sei whales have been reported as bycatch in 13 years of records South Korea has submitted to the International Whaling Commission, and the Antarctic minke whale is not found in the Northern Hemisphere.
Same whale, two countries
Testing showed the fin whale meat likely came from the same whale offered for sale at a Japanese market in 2007, which the scientists also tested.
The study also detailed DNA testing of whale meat that led The Hump sushi restaurant in Santa Monica, Calif., to close last month. The restaurant and a sushi chef were charged with illegally selling an endangered species product.
The International Whaling Commission meets again in Morocco starting May 29 and will consider allowing 1,400 gray whales to be hunted over the next decade.
Douglas DeMaster, the U.S. delegation's deputy commissioner, said an advisory panel is developing recommendations on resolving the stalemate between nations over commercial whaling.
President Barack Obama's administration is waiting to see the recommendations before taking a position, but DNA testing and an international registry of whale meat DNA, as suggested by the study's authors, would be key to enforcement of controls on international trade, DeMaster said.