Molecular genetic identification of whale and dolphin products from commercial markets in Korea and Japan


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We report the methods and results of molecular genetic identification of the species and, in some cases, geographical origins of whale and dolphin products purchased from retail markets and restaurants in Japan and South Korea. As reported previously (Baker & Palumbi 1994), we used the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and a portable laboratory to amplify, purify and later sequence a portion of the mitochondrial DNA control region from 16 commercial products purchased in Japan. This ‘spot check’ revealed a surprising variety of species for sale, including minke, fin and humpback whales and one or two species of dolphins sold as ‘kujira’ or whale. In the Korean survey, DNA amplifications were conducted by two of us (C.S.B. and F.C.) working with independent equipment and reagents. The two sets of DNA amplifications were returned to our respective laboratories and sequenced independently for cross-validation. Among the total of 17 species-specific sequences we found a dolphin, a beaked whale, 13 Northern Hemisphere minke whales (representing at least seven distinct individuals) and two whales which are closely related to the recognized sei and Bryde's whales but could not be identified as either using available type sequences. We suggest that these two specimens represent a currently unrecognized species or subspecies of Bryde's whale, possibly the so-called ‘small-form’ reported from the tropical waters of the Indo-Pacific.

We conclude that molecular systematic analyses of DNA sequences have tremendous utility for the identification of whale and dolphin products. However, there are certain constraints on the application of these techniques for monitoring whaling or trade in whale products. First, PCR and DNA sequencing can generate misleading artefacts. These can generally be recognized or eliminated through experimental controls. Second, phylogenetic reconstructions of DNA sequences can be misinterpreted if the database of type sequences is inadequate or the taxonomy of the group is incomplete. This constraint is, at present, a more serious obstacle to molecular monitoring of whaling. Our results highlight uncertainties about the taxonomic status of oceanic populations and morphological forms of two species (or species complexes) targeted by legal and illegal hunting, the minke and Bryde's whales. Despite these uncertainties, it is difficult to reconcile some of the species available in Japanese and Korean commercial markets with recent catch records made available to the International Whaling Commission. It is particularly disturbing that two specimens of an unrecognized species or subspecies of baleen whale were for sale in a restaurant in South Korea in October, 1994, 8 years after the acceptance of an international moratorium on commercial whaling.