Most IWC* member countries accidently kill whales, e.g. by unintentionally ramming into them with motorized vessels or by using fishing methods that may entangle and suffocate these air-breathing mammals as accidental by-catch. While this type of accidental deaths is reported from most member nations, Japan and South Korea have an inordinate amount of accidental by-catchs, says Professor Scott Baker, associate director of the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University.

By analysing the DNA of whale-meat products sold in Japanese markets, Baker, a cetacean expert, and Dr Vimoksalehi Lukoscheck of the University of California-Irvine, found that meat from as many as 150 whales came from the coastal population. Japan’s scientific whaling program only targets whales from open ocean populations, but whales accidently killed outside the program are allowed to be sold.

humpback whale Why are whales in Korean and Japanese waters more accident prone than others, scientists wonder
Humpback Whale

Japan and South Korea are the only countries that allow the commercial sale of products derived from whales killed as accidental by-catch and the sheer number of whales represented by whale-meat products on the market suggests that there might be something fishy about these allegedly accidental kills.

They DNA study showed that nearly 46 percent of examined Minke whale products came from a coastal whale population, which has distinct genetic characteristics, and is protected by international agreements. In addition to minke whales, Baker and Lukoscheck also found DNA from Humpback whales, Bryde’s whales, Fin whales, and Western gray whales.

“The sale of bycatch alone supports a lucrative trade in whale meat at markets in some Korean coastal cities, where the wholesale price of an adult minke whale can reach as high as $100,000,” Baker said. “Given these financial incentives, you have to wonder how many of these whales are, in fact, killed intentionally.”

In January 2008, Korean police launched an investigation into organized illegal whaling in the port town of Ulsan, reportedly seizing 50 tons of minke whale meat.

Japan has asked the IWC, who is holding its annual meeting this week, to allow a small coastal whaling program in Japanese waters. This request is something that professor Baker says should be scrutinized carefully because of the uncertainty of the actual catch and the need to determine appropriate population counts to sustain the distinct stocks.

Baker and Lukoscheck have presented their findings to the IWC commission and the study will also be published in a forthcoming issue of the journal Animal Conservation.

* International Whaling Commission