ET History: This is the archival press release that announced the start of a new field of science: Forensic Whale DNA


OCTOBER 22, 1997


New DNA tests target illegal whaling:

Same-day DNA testing now a reality

Dead Whale Talking: bits of blubber can tell a dead whale's - or dolphin's - story

- ET charges that Whale Meat stockpiles do not exist, challenges Japan to show any evidence.

- Earthtrust research throws cold water on Japan's "big freezer" excuse

- Dolphin Fraudulently Sold as "whale" Increasing

- Research raises conservation and human-health concerns


Earthtrust, the conservation organization which rocked the 1994 IWC meeting with the first-ever DNA market surveys of Japan's whalemeat market, has conducted the longest-running independent DNA sampling of this market since the original 1993 data collection. These surveys continue to provide a crucial window on the often-covert whalemeat business in the world's highest-priced marketplace for whale meat.

Earthtrust pioneered the technique, now being used by others as well, to do "in situ" DNA amplification of whale samples in Japanese hotel rooms to make the practice acceptable under CITES treaty terms. Trained Earthtrust teams each year collect randomized samples across Japan, and a followup trip by ET-funded molecular biologists take a "molecular snapshot" of the meat samples, which may be exported for further analysis since it contains no whalemeat.

The first year's results, published in the journal Science by Dr. Steve Palumbi, now director of Harvard University's Center for Conservation and Evolutionary Genetics, and Dr. C. Scott Baker of the University of Auckland, showed ready availability of many whale species, including some under complete international protection like the highly endangered humpback whale which had been "protected" since the 1960's.

Earthtrust's staff DNA scientist Frank Cipriano in a Japan hotel room preparing a DNA amplification

DNA identification surveys have been continued since then in a continuing alliance between Palumbi's lab - now at Harvard - and Earthtrust, which continues to fund and coordinate the program. This multi-year independent testing is providing ever more intriguing information about the world's largest and most lucrative whalemeat market. These include breakthroughs in scientific technique, such as the first "same-day" genetic test for whalemeat; new information that throws cold water on Japan's "big freezer" excuse for marketing endangered species; a frightening wake-up call that an increasing percentage of whalemeat sold in japan is really mislabeled dolphin meat; and tantalizing signs that this DNA analysis may be causing Japan to clean up its act.

Same-Day Whale Identification by DNA: Dr. Frank Cipriano, scientist in charge of Earthtrust's forensic DNA efforts and its 1997 representative to the IWC, developed a significant breakthrough when he created, and then field-tested during a 1996 amplification trip to Japan, a "species-specific primer" to accomplish "same day" species identification.

Dr. Cipriano personally designed this entirely new chemical in 1996, which when used in the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to amplify whale DNA, provides a quick "yes" or "no" as to species identity. The primer was developed to identify Southern Hemisphere Minke Whales (presumably from Japan's Antarctic "research whaling kill"). When field tested, it proved to be 100% accurate, and heralds a time when all significant species can be identified in greater quantities and with almost no time lag in the field. This will have significant advantages for market surveys, monitoring of commercial whaling , and verifying stockpiles.

"We are following through to assure that this breakthrough technology becomes quicker, cheaper, and more efficient each year. It is now realistic to talk of DNA-identifying all whales in the marketplace, and we call on the IWC to institute multinational, independent external testing of the markets of whale-consuming nations as a necessary and permanent prerequisite for any proposals regarding whaling by those nations", said Sue White, Director of Marine Programs for Earthtrust.

Is this meat 25 years old? Japan's whaling industry says yes, research says no.

Per DNA Research, Japans 'Old Meat' Excuse Begins to Smell: Another important outcome of this year's Earthtrust/Harvard research is data which tends to debunk one of Japan's classic excuses for having the meat of endangered whales on sale decades after the whales were protected by treaty: the claim that meat is kept in freezers for long periods. Says Dr. Cipriano, in a paper presented to the IWC Scientific Committee: "The low number of minke whales in the market as estimated by our analysis suggests that products from each whale remain for only a short time before being replaced by products from another whale. This in turn suggests that stockpiles of whales are low. This argues against the hypothesis that the presence of protected species in the market is due to animals killed before the ban on commercial whaling in 1989."

Earthtrust's President Don White goes further: "I think it's high time the IWC challenges Japan to show us these freezers full of decades-old whale meat for verification. It is Earthtrust's belief that these 'stockpiles' don't exist except as a fantasy to explain away the embarrassing implications of a whalemeat market which is still out of control."

White went on to offer Earthtrust's aid to Japan in verifying and DNA-sampling any such meat which can actually be produced. He also noted that Japan could easily solve the problem another way. "While it is against Japan's domestic laws to import illegally-killed whales, it is, incredibly, not illegal to sell them within Japan. Japan could easily enact domestic laws requiring that endangered-whale stockpiles be sold. That they have not done so is another indication that these stockpiles do not exist ."

Dolphins being killed en masse at Futo Harbor, Japan. The red is dolphin blood.

Dolphins Increasingly Sold Fraudulently as "Whale": One strong trend discovered by the Earthtrust sampling and Cipriano's analysis is a disturbing rise in the percentage of samples labeled as whale meat which are actually dolphin meat. The percentage of small cetaceans being sold to the public as "kujira" (whale meat) has risen from 14.6% in 1993 to 28.8% in 1996, almost doubling over that time.

"This is alarming on several levels" commented ET's Don White. "From a conservation point of view, it could mean greatly increased dolphin kills, though this is yet to be determined. Based on the prices paid by our field agents, the meat from a single dolphin can be worth US$3000. That level of pricing could encourage a growing trade, and dolphins are not well protected by treaty".

"But the dolphins may not be the only victims. " continued White, "This is also a health issue with potentially scandalous implications in Japan. Dolphin meat from waters around Japan is extremely high in bioaccumulating toxins such as heavy metals and organochlorines, and sells for low prices when properly labeled. Our surveys indicate that