Despite a world moratorium on commercial whaling passed by the International Whaling Commission in 1982, whaling continues under the guise of scientific research by Japan and through consistent fisheries "bycatch" of whales in South Korea. Products from both scientific research and bycatch are legally sold in these countries. In 1993, Scott Baker, in collaboration with Steve Palumbi (now at Stanford University) and Earthtrust, initiated a program of "molecular monitoring" to identify the species of whales and dolphins sold in these commercial markets (Baker and Palumbi 1994).
This program is now in it 14th year and has identified the species and in some cases the geographic origin of nearly 2,000 products from at least 28 species of cetaceans including seven species or subspecies of protected baleen whales: the humpback, western gray, fin, blue/fin hybrids, sei, Bryde’s and small-from Bryde’s whales (Baker et al. 1996; Baker et al. 2000b).
Products are "sampled" through targeted purchasing of whale meat from various markets in each country by local collaborators, Naoko Funahashi (International Fund for Animal Welfare, (IFAW) Japan) and Yong-Un Ma (Korean Federation for Environment Movement (KFEM)). These samples cannot be exported directly from either country due to the constraints of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Therefore, once or twice a year, trips are made to each country with a portable PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) laboratory to extract DNA, amplify regions of interest and isolate this amplified artificial DNA for further genetic analyses back in the CCGL.
In addition to the continued sale of protected species, we have identified the large-scale undocumented exploitation of a protected population or ‘stock’ (J-stock) of North Pacific minke whales (Baker et al. 2000a) (Dalebout et al. 2002). The results of a five-year survey of whale products in Korea were used to estimate the growing threat of unregulated exploitation of minke whales by fisheries entanglement ("net whaling"). Using a novel capture-recapture method developed for the analysis of market products by Dr. Justin Cooke, we estimated that more than 800 minke whales have been killed and sold on markets during the last five years. This level of exploitation represents a serious threat to the survival of the genetically distinct population of minke whales found along the coasts of Korea and Japan (Baker et al. 2007).
As a result of heightened awareness of the potential for illegal or unregulated exploitation of whales, the International Whaling Commission is now considering DNA monitoring and a DNA "registry" of all hunted whales, as a requirement of further management programs (Baker et al 2000b and accompanying comment by S. Ohsumi, Director, Japanese Institute of Cetacean Research). To aid in this proposed system of observation and inspection, we have developed a Web-based program for identifying all whales, dolphins and porpoises using applied bioinformatics and a validated database of DNA sequences. Details are at www.dna-surveillance.auckland.ac.nz.
Market monitoring has also been useful in identifying the human health risks of an unregulated market in whale and dolphin products. In collaboration with Dr. Tetusya Endo of the Health Sciences University of Hokkaido, many of the products from dolphins and porpoises have been tested for mercury contamination. Levels of mercury in the meat of most species of small cetaceans is well above that recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO), and consumption of even small portions could pose a serious threat to pregnant women.
This research has been funded by grants from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). Past or present collaborators include Merel Dalebout, Shane Lavery, Gina Lento, Vimoksalehi Lukoschek, Debbie Steel and Frank Cipriano.