Whale Sushi in Los Angeles and Seoul Evidence of Illegal Trade

CORVALLIS, Oregon, April 14, 2010 (ENS) – An illegal trade in whalemeat, linking whales killed in Japan’s controversial scientific whaling program to sushi restaurants in Los Angeles, California and Seoul, South Korea, has been uncovered by an international team of scientists, documentary filmmakers and environmental advocates.

Genetic analysis of sashimi served at a Los Angeles sushi restaurant in October 2009 has confirmed that the pieces of raw meat purchased by filmmakers of the Oscar-winning documentary, “The Cove,” came from an endangered sei whale.

International trade in sei whales, Balaenoptera borealis, and their parts is banned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. and sei whales are listed as Endangered on the authoritative IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

The Oregon State University scientist who conducted the DNA analysis says the whale meat served at the restaurant, called The Hump, most likely is a product of Japanese “scientific whaling.”

Whalemeat served at a Los Angeles-area sushi restaurant (Photo by Charles Hambleton courtesy OSU)

“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,” said Scott Baker, associate director of the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University, who conducted the DNA analysis.

“And since the international moratorium on commercial hunting (1986), there has been no other known source of sei whales available commercially other than in Japan,” Baker said. “This underscores the very real problem of the illegal international trade of whalemeat products.”

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

The illegal trade was first uncovered by “The Cove” director Louie Psihoyos and assistant director Charles Hambleton who covertly filmed the serving of whale products at The Hump restaurant.

Following initial identification of the samples taken from the restaurant, the products were turned over 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.

Baker said the samples taken from The Hump cannot conclusively be linked to an individual whale because genetic identity records of animals killed through Japan’s scientific whaling are not released by the Japanese government.

In their paper, Baker and 10 co-authors, including “The Cove” filmmakers, call for Japan to share its DNA register of whales taken from that country’s scientific whaling program and “bycatch” whaling. Bycatch is the unintentional capture of non-target species by fishing vessels.

“Our ability to use genetics as a tool to monitor whale populations around the world has advanced significantly over the past few years,” Baker said, “but 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.

“This is not just about better control of whaling itself,” Baker said, “but getting a better handle on the international trade of whale products.”

Four kinds of whale meat served at a restaurant in Seoul, South Korea (Photo courtesy OSU)

In their paper, Baker and colleagues from the Korean Federation of Environmental Movements also report on 13 whale products purchased at a sushi restaurant in Seoul during two 2009 visits.

The sushi was part of a mixed plate of “whale sashimi.” Genetic testing by Baker and OSU’s Debbie Steel determined 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.

International trade in fin whales, Balaenoptera physalus, and their parts is also prohibited by the CITES treaty, and fin whales are listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

The other whales and the Risso’s dolphin are not protected species.

Further testing by collaborators from Seoul National University confirmed the individual identity of the whale products by DNA profiling.

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, strongly suggesting it came from the same whale.

“Since the international moratorium, it has been assumed that there is no international trade in whale products,” Baker said. “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.

“Likewise, the Antarctic minke whale is not found in Korean waters, but it is hunted by Japan’s controversial scientific whaling program in the Antarctic. How did it show up in a restaurant in Seoul?” he asked.

Baker has developed an international reputation for his research in determining the origin of whalemeat products sold in markets around the world. His research on identification of dolphin meat contaminated with high levels of mercury was featured in “The Cove,” where he worked with Psihoyos and Hambleton.

In their paper, the authors describe the long legacy of falsifying whale catch records, beginning with the Soviet Union, which failed to account for more than 100,000 whales it killed in the 20th century. They say this illegal, unreported or unregulated whaling “continues today under the cover of incidental fisheries bycatch and scientific whaling.”

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