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DNA Tests Show Whale Slaughter Continues Despite Moratorium

May 98 NZ Herald (AP / Reuters)

Mexican humpbacks were among whale meat found in markets.

Taking surreptitious samples from sushi restaurants and supermarket freezers two sleuthing New Zealand scientists have uncovered strong evidence of an international black market in whale meat in Japan and South Korea. Tests conducted by the University of revealed that a wide variety of whale meat is still on sale in despite a 12-year-old moratorium on whale-hunting. A piece of meat from a Japanese fish market, for example, was found to be from a type of humpback whale found only in Mexican coastal waters. 'How can a Mexican whale turn up on a Japanese dinner plate? There is no evidence Mexican whales ever migrate into Japanese one of the scientists, Gina Lento.

The scientists also found Southern Hemisphere sei whale, Bryde's whale, North Pacific minke, fin and blue whale meat on sale in Japanese markets, up to 30 years affer they were protected from hunting. Japan is the only country exempted from the 1986 International Whaling Commission moratorium on whale hunting, but it is restricted to huntifig only for research. Meat from the whales killed for this purpose often is sold at fish markets, however. Norway also holds an annual hunt, in defiance of the moratorium. South Korea has no research hunting permits, and whale meat can be sold legally in markets only if caught accidentally on the coast along with legal fish. The scientists' work bolsters claims by conservation groups, independent researchers and some governments that there is a growing international trade in illegal whale meat. Their report, delivered to the Whaling Commission's scientific committee last week, will go to the full commission in Oman at the weekend. The report says there is a "Surprising diversity" of whale meat in commercial markets, some of which is of questionable legality. 'The evidence is strongly circumstantial at present, the, smoking gun, if you like Gina Lento said. 'We are moving toward a forensic approach that will provide the bullet In the body and the hand that pulled trigger. In the past four years, Gina Lento and colleague Scott Baker have made two trips a year to Japan and South Korea. They hired local investigators posing as buyers to obtain samples. Using a portable laboratory, the scientists used DNA testing and a whale DNA database to identify the types of whale meat being sold in the two countries. They also used DNA profiling to identify whether separate samples came from the same whale. 'If we find samples from two courttries are the same, that will be direct evidence of smuggling," Gina Lento said. In a similar case in California, fish and game officials recently used a newly developed technique for typing deer DNA to show that 90kg of venison from a man's freezer came from more deer than the hunting limit allows. The technique, among other things, can determine whether meat is from a male or female, and how many deer it came from. Further work is needed to show whether whale meat being sold in Japan, South Korea and other markets comes from areas of the globe where whaling is banned, Gina Lento said. "We don't have direct, definitive proof, but our DNA evidence suggests there are some very sticky questions ahead.' Gina Lento and Scott Baker are supported by grants from the Inteniational Fund for Animal Welfare and the University of Auckland Research Council. In addition to providhig their findings to the Whaling Commission, they publish their results in academic journals. - AP