Genetic Tracking of a Protected Whale
from Birth to Meatmarket

Earthtrust Press Release * January 29, 1999

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Earthtrust's forensic DNA program, invented and begun in 1993, had new results published in NATURE on 1/27/99 documenting the life and death of a whale from its birth in the North atlantic to its sale in an Osaka department store in 1993. This whale's story provides a valuable perspective on the realities of whaling.

In 1994 at the annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), Earthtrust introduced the world to forensic DNA analysis of marketed whalemeat. While genetic technology had been theoretically available, treaty restriction had prevented outsiders from analyzing Japan's market.

This was addressed by Earthtrust's adaptation of existing techniques to send a small DNA-amplification "lab in a suitcase" and a scientific team into Japan to "clone" the DNA of purchased whalemeat samples. As the cloned sequences were then only "chemical snapshots" and not part of the whale, they could be exported without permission from Japanese authorities. Results showed humpback, blue, fin, and other theoretically "protected" whales being served up in Japan's marketplace, and shook up the dishonest world of illicit whale trade.

Earthtrust continued its testing across the ensuing years to determine trends in sales of protected species, but the whale now in the news was among the initial samples bought by Earthtrust agents in 1993. It has been possible to reconstruct the life, death, and ultimate fate of this whale; and the technology which tells this story is revolutionizing the monitoring of whaling infractions.

During the 1995 analysis trip to Japan, Earthtrust had its staff geneticist Frank Cipriano (author of the current NATURE story) re-sequence the '93 samples to extract additional data on these whales. Emerging from that work is the story of a unique whale, and how he died and became sushi while "protected".

Initial mitochondrial DNA analysis in 1993 showed that the whale was a Blue Whale; or at least that its mother was a blue whale. (mitochondrial DNA is inherited only from the mother). These sequences seemed to initially match those of a blue-fin hybrid whale harpooned near Iceland in 1989. Proving that it was the same whale required also sequencing the whale's nuclear DNA, which is inherited from both parents and which contains unique individual variations making "genetic fingerprinting" possible.

The results are irrefutable. The whale bought under plastic wrap from an upscale Osaka department store in 1993 was born in the North Atlantic in 1965 to a blue whale mother and a fin whale father. He was sterile. (Blue whale populations have been so decimated by whaling that they have trouble finding other blues for mating; contributing to a downward slide in populations even without whaling.) He was "protected" in 1986 with the IWC whaling moratorium. However, Iceland issued itself a whaling permit for "research" and harpooned him in 1989. At death, he was 21.5 meters (over 70 feet) long and 24 years old, and worth a lot of money in Japan's market.

His meat was presumably shipped to Japan in 1990 as part of 1,074 tons of whalemeat shipped by Iceland that year. Japan belongs to CITES which prohibits such trade, but it had "filed an exception" to this rule. Thus, although two international treaties protected this rare whale, these protections were neatly circumvented by Iceland and Japan.

Earthtrust's DNA initiative has revolutionized the monitoring of whaling infractions and altered the politics of whaling; and this case points to the value of "fingerprinting" individual whales to control illegal sales, as well as to the inadequacy of treaty alone to protect depleted populations. The IWC has now adopted resolutions for the genetic testing of whale products and "stockpiles" of whale meat as initially proposed by Earthtrust at the 1994 IWC meeting in Puerto Vallarta. At that meeting Norwegian delegates agreed verbally to make public a genetic database of whales killed in its whaling, which was begun in 1997. Yet there is a long way to go before credible multinational DNA market testing becomes the norm; and this must be the goal if whales are to survive while any commerce in whalemeat is still allowed.

The ET Whale DNA Initiative has uncovered a threat to dolphins as well. Genetic testing shows that fully a third of samples sold as "kujira" (whale) in Japan are - in reality - small cetacean meat. Moreover, at the prices paid by ET agents, this mislabeling can make individual dolphins worth US$3000 in the marketplace. ET data shows the relative percentage of "dolphin sold as whale" rising steadily. Dolphins are not afforded protection under the IWC, and this commerce could be disastrous.

It is potentially disastrous for Japanese consumers as well, for unlike antarctic whale meat, dolphin meat is heavily contaminated by heavy metals and other bioaccumulating toxins. Thus, Japanese consumers paying caviar prices for whalemeat are being simultaneously swindled and poisoned. Earthtrust has launched a positive public-awareness campaign seeking to alert the Japanese public to this mislabeling, to avert a public-health threat and end a dishonest commerce in dolphin flesh.

ET is continuing its efforts to adapt high technology to the saving of whales and dolphins.

Genetic sequencing has been done by Earthtrust staff, the University of Hawaii, the University of New Zealand, and Harvard University under arrangement with Earthtrust. The Harvard work is now financially supported by a Pew grant.

For more information, contact:

Don White, President; or
Sue White, DNA Project Director


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