JAPAN'S annual scientific catch of whales is disguising an undocumented trade in meat from accidentally caught and possibly poached whales, claim researchers. According to a new analysis of whale meat in the country, if the trade continues it could drive a unique subgroup of minke whales in the Sea of Japan to extinction.
Sale of whale meat is legal in Japan if it comes from frozen stockpiles, from the annual catch of around 500 minke whales which the government is allowed to kill for scientific study, or from "bycatch" -- whales killed accidentally by fishing gear or ship strikes. Most of the scientific catch are Antarctic minke whales, but around 100 a year belong to a subgroup of North Pacific minkes called the O stock. Neither is considered to be endangered.
However, another subgroup of North Pacific minkes that live in the Sea of Japan, the J stock, number fewer than 2000. Of the 25 whales killed as bycatch by Japan each year, 15 come from the Sea of Japan. Therefore, no more than 15 per cent of the North Pacific minke whales on the Japanese market should be from the J stock.
But the new report claims the proportion is double this. From 1993 to 1999, a team of marine biologists led by Scott Baker of the University of Auckland and Stephen Palumbi of Harvard University enlisted local collaborators to buy whale meat in Japanese markets and restaurants. After analysing the mitochondrial DNA of 574 samples, the researchers conclude that nearly a third of the North Pacific minke whales on the market came from the J stock. They estimate that these unreported catches could tip the balance for the J stock, driving the number of mature females beneath critical levels in less than a century (see Graph). "The population is in serious trouble," Palumbi says.
Japanese and Korean scientists who heard the report at the International Whaling Commission's Scientific Committee meeting in Adelaide last week remained unconvinced. Joji Morishita, a Japanes
Contact: Claire Bowles