Police in South Korea reportedly raided a Japanese restaurant in Seoul today, the latest development in a widening scandal involving illegal trade in whale meat. The raid comes a day after a new study established that the whale meat that was served to customers in a Los Angeles sushi restaurant came from a whale that was killed as part of Japan's "research whaling" program. The lead researcher in the study says that the findings underline that provisions in a draft "deal" being negotiated by members of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) are inadequate to prevent illegal trade in the future.
A team of undercover activists, working with an associate producer of the Academy Award-winning documentary The Cove, documented late in 2009 that an upscale LA sushi restaurant, The Hump, was selling whale meat - a violation of the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act. (Prosecutors have brought charges against the chef and the owners, who have since closed the restaurant).
The scientist who determined that the meat in question was from an endangered sei whale, Scott Baker of Oregon University, is the lead author of a paper published in the journal Biology Letters on Wednesday. Using DNA analysis, Baker and colleagues determined that the genetic sequences of the meat were identical to those in whale meat products purchased in Japan in 2007 and 2008, "consistent with an origin from a whale killed in the JARPN II (Japanese scientific hunt) in the North Pacific." The Biology Letters paper also identified samples of whale meat served in a Seoul restaurant as being Antarctic and North Pacific minke whale, sei whale, fin whale, and Risso's dolphin. Baker and his team noted that several of those samples were "inconsistent with local origin":
The Antarctic minke whale is not found in waters of the Northern Hemisphere. The sei whale has not been found in previous surveys of Korean markets or reported in the 13 years of official record of bycatch submitted by the Government of Korea to the IWC. The fin whale has not been found previously in surveys of Korean markets and only twice as bycatch in Korea records, once in 2002 and once in 2004.Antarctic minkes are hunted only by Japan, and the fin whale sample also matched meat purchased in Japan in 2007, strongly suggesting it came from the same whale.
The findings come as IWC member countries seek to finalize a controversial deal that would essentially legitimize continued whaling by Japan, Norway, and Iceland in exchange for agreed restrictions on that whaling. Advocates of the proposed agreement argue that inclusion of a provision for a DNA database of whale meat is a defense against illegal trade, but Baker says that, as presently drafted, that provision is wholly inadequate.
"We have argued that an acceptable scheme must be robust, transparent and independent and, if possible, efficient and economic. Unfortunately, the current proposal does not fully satisfy any of these criteria," he wrote in an email. For example, he says, the present draft "makes it quite clear that the submission procedure for a comparison (a 'test' sample) is at the discretion of the member nation holding the register [...]This offers considerable protection (to the hunting nation) from 'fraudulent claims' but not much protection to the whales."
Added Patrick Ramage of the International Fund for Animal Welfare: "The language on a DNA database in the draft proposal is written to reassure, but in truth would allow whales to be killed and sold, and enable governments to cover their tracks. Instead of devoting their energies and resources in ending the trade in whale meat, our formerly conservation-minded governments are trying to rush through a compromise that asks us to ignore the whale meat behind the curtain."
Image: Stefan Powell (Whale meat on sale in Tsukiji fish market, Japan)
Date: April 15, 2010