DNA test finds whale meat illegally served in restaurants was from Japan hunt

By Blaine Harden
Thursday, April 15, 2010

TOKYO -- Whale meat served last year in upscale sushi restaurants in Los Angeles and Seoul came from whales killed as part of Japan's "scientific" hunt, according to a DNA analysis published Wednesday.

A global ban on whaling was imposed 14 years ago, but Japan has courted controversy for years by invoking an exception in the ban for scientific research and by sending out a whaling fleet that harpoons several hundred whales a year. The fleet brings home thousands of tons of whale meat, which is sold across Japan but cannot legally be sold to buyers in the United States or South Korea.

In what may prove to be a major embarrassment to the Japanese government, the peer-reviewed DNA analysis suggests that distribution of whale meat may be haphazardly managed and that the meat could be flowing into an international smuggling network.

The analysis showed that two pieces of whale meat sold last October in The Hump, a Los Angeles-area restaurant, were "identical" to whale products purchased in Japan in 2007 and 2008, according to a paper by an 11-member group of scientists and conservationists from the United States, South Korea and Japan.

The authors said the meat came from a sei whale killed in the North Pacific during a Japanese scientific hunt. In Los Angeles last month, The Hump publicly apologized -- and closed its doors -- after federal prosecutors charged its owner and principal chef with the illegal sale of a marine mammal product.

The DNA analysis also matched fin-whale meat served last year in a Seoul restaurant to fin-whale products sold in Japan. Japan killed 13 fin whales between 2005 and 2008, and it is "highly likely" the meat purchased in South Korea and Japan came from the same whale, said the paper, which appeared online in the journal Biology Letters, published by the London-based Royal Society.

"The illegal trade of products from protected species of whales, presumably taken under a national permit for scientific research, is a timely reminder of the need for independent, transparent and robust monitoring of any future whaling," the paper said. The authors include scientists from Oregon State University and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The paper said DNA testing showed that three protected species of whale killed in the Japanese hunt -- sei, fin and Antarctic minke -- have been subject to unauthorized international trade.

An official from Japan's Fisheries Agency told Kyodo News that the trade, if confirmed, is illegal. He said Japan has no record of having issued a permit to export fin-whale meat.

Japan, Iceland and Norway maintain that under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, they can by special permit engage in international trade in some whale products. The countries are expected to continue to hunt whales.

The paper's authors have asked the Japanese government to give DNA records on the whales killed during its hunts to an independent laboratory. It said a verified match "would confirm an infraction of CITES regulations on trade of whale products."

In Tokyo, the International Fund for Animal Welfare called on Japanese and South Korean police to crack down on the whale trade.

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