The hunting of large whales is regulated by the International Whaling Commission (IWC), and trade in whale products is regulated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). In 1982, the IWC adopted a moratorium on commercial whaling, effective from 1986. However, hunting of whales continues through exceptions to the moratorium. Japan initiated hunting of Antarctic minke whales under Special Permit (i.e. ‘scientific whaling’) in 1988, and has steadily expanded this programme to include western North Pacific common minke whales, sei whales, Bryde's whales, sperm whales and, most recently, fin whales from the Antarctic (see the electronic supplementary material S1, table S1). Japan and the Republic of Korea (South Korea) allow a thriving commercial sale of whales killed in incidental fisheries ‘bycatch’ (Lukoschek et al. 2009
). Iceland and Norway initiated whaling under Special Permit following the moratorium but now conduct commercial whaling in the North Atlantic under an ‘objection’ to the moratorium.
Although whaling and the domestic sale of whale products continue despite the IWC moratorium, it is generally assumed that there is no ongoing international trade in whale products. All 13 species of whales regulated by the IWC are listed on appendix I of CITES, except for the West Greenland population of minke whale. Appendix I species cannot be traded for commercial purposes. However, Japan, Iceland and Norway maintain ‘reservations’ on the appendix I listing of some whales, allowing trade of products from these species with ‘appropriate’ permits. These exceptions do not allow trade with countries that do not hold such CITES reservation, such as South Korea and the US.
Given the number of ongoing and emerging exceptions to the hunting of whales and to the trade in whale products, there is an urgent need for effective measures to verify authorized catch limits and trade records, and to detect infractions. Among the most powerful tools for the control of trade in fisheries and wildlife are molecular monitoring of commercial outlets (e.g. markets and restaurants) and genetic tracking of products (Baker 2008
). Through sequencing of mitochondrial (mt) DNA, or ‘DNA barcoding’, it is possible to identify the species origin of almost any cetacean product. Through multi-locus genotyping, or ‘DNA profiling’, it is possible to identify the individual source of a product or to track the distribution of products from source to market (Cipriano & Palumbi 1999
; Baker et al. 2007
A formal extension of genetic tracking involves establishing a ‘DNA register’, or electronic database, to include the DNA profile of all individual whales destined for trade or commercial sale (DeSalle & Amato 2004
). The DNA profile of a questionable market product or customs interdiction can then be compared with the register; a match to the register would confirm that the product originated from an authorized source and was imported with appropriate permits. Japan and Norway have both developed DNA registers for whales destined for commercial sale. However, both countries oppose implementation of market surveys for monitoring of whaling and neither country has yet agreed to the sharing of the register with an independent central authority (e.g. the IWC Secretariat). Requests for access to the registers are by application to the appropriate national authorities.
Here, we report on genetic evidence linking ‘whale meat’ products purchased in sushi restaurants in Los Angeles, USA and in Seoul, South Korea, to a probable origin in the scientific whaling programme of Japan. The purchases of the products from these two restaurants were opportunistic and the timing was coincidental, as each involved investigators who were unknown to each other. To allow genetic tracking of these products, we have submitted a request to the Government of Japan for access to the DNA register of whales taken in scientific whaling and in commercial ‘bycatch’ whaling.