Skip to content
About the Royal Society

DNA tests uncover illegal trade in whale meat

14 April 2010

A team of scientists, led by Professor Scott Baker of Oregon State University, have used DNA analysis to show that restaurants in Los Angeles and Seoul were serving illegally traded whale meat from protected species.  The results of the study, published this week in Royal Society journal Biology Letters, were handed over to local and national authorities and have since resulted in criminal proceedings against the Los Angeles restaurant.  The authors urge extensive and immediate further action in order to determine the extent to which whale products are being illegally traded.

Japan is permitted to take part in strictly controlled whaling for scientific purposes, but there are strict rules preventing the commercial exploitation of whales hunted in this way; individual whales are logged on a DNA register so that they can be identified.  Both Japan and South Korea are permitted to trade whale meat from animals killed as an incidental result of other fishing.  However, the export of any whale meat from these countries to the U.S.A. is strictly prohibited.

The researchers used mitochondrial DNA sequencing to identify the species of whale and then used DNA profiling – the same technique used to identify human individuals in criminal forensics – to identify the source of the meat.  The results showed that the whale meat consumed in the Los Angeles restaurant had almost certainly originated in Japanese ‘scientific’ whale hunts.  Some of the meat purchased in Seoul came from Antarctic minke whales, a species which is not local to South Korea and must have therefore also been traded illegally.

Although Japanese authorities keep a DNA register of each whale destined to be sold commercially, this information is not available for monitoring purposes.  The researchers suggest that urgent action is needed in making this information available to scientists so further monitoring and analysis of commercially available whale meat can take place.  As the authors state, “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”.