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We present a two-tiered analysis of molecular genetic variation in order to determine the origins of whale' products purchased from retail markets in Japan and the Republic of (South) Korea during 1993-1999. This approach combined phylogenetic analysis of mitochondrial DNA sequences for identification of protected species with a statistical comparison of intraspecific haplotype frequencies for distinguishing regional subpopulations or 'stocks' hunted for scientific research by the Japanese and killed incidentally in coastal fisheries by the Koreans. The phylogenetic identification of 655 products included eight species or subspecies of baleen whales, sperm whales, a pygmy sperm whale, two species of beaked whales, porpoises, killer whales and numerous species of dolphins as well as domestic sheep and horses. Six of the baleen whale species (the fin, sei, common-form and small-form Bryde's, blue or blue/fin hybrid, and humpback) and the sperm whale are protected by international agreements dating back to at least 1989 for all species and 1966 for some species. We compared the haplotype frequencies from the Japanese market sample to those reported from scientific hunting in the western North Pacific stock for products derived from the exploited North Pacific minke whale. The market sample differed significantly from the scientific catch (p < 0.001), showing a greater than expected frequency of haplotypes characteristic of the protected Sea of Japan stock. We used a 'mixed-stock' analysis and maximum-likelihood methods to estimate that 31% (95% confidence interval 19-43%) of the market for this species originated from the Sea of Japan stock. The source of these products was assumed to be undocumented 'incidental takes' from fisheries' by-catch, although we cannot exclude the possibility of illegal hunting or smuggling. The demographic impact of this undocumented exploitation was evaluated using the model of population dynamics adopted by the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission. For the range of exploitation consistent with the market sample, this protected stock was predicted to decline towards extinction over the next few decades. These results confirmed the power of molecular methods in monitoring retail markets and pointed to the inadequacy of the current moratorium for ensuring the recovery of protected species. More importantly, the integration of genetic evidence with a model of population dynamics identified an urgent need for actions to limit undocumented exploitation of a 'protected' stock of whales.