Surveys of commercial markets combined with molecular taxonomy (i.e. molecular monitoring) provide a means to detect products from illegal, unregulated and/or unreported (IUU) exploitation, including the sale of fisheries bycatch and wild meat (bushmeat). Capture-recapture analyses of market products using DNA profiling have the potential to estimate the total number of individuals entering the market. However, these analyses are not directly analogous to those of living individuals because a ‘market individual’ does not die suddenly but, instead, remains available for a time in decreasing quantities, rather like the exponential decay of a radioactive isotope. Here we use mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) sequences and microsatellite genotypes to individually identify products from North Pacific minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata ssp.) purchased in 12 surveys of markets in the Republic of (South) Korea from 1999 to 2003. By applying a novel capture-recapture model with a decay rate parameter to the 205 unique DNA profiles found among 289 products, we estimated that the total number of whales entering trade across the five-year survey period was 827 (SE, 164; CV, 0.20) and that the average ‘half-life’ of products from an individual whale on the market was 1.82 months (SE, 0.24; CV, 0.13). Our estimate of whales in trade (reflecting the true numbers killed) was significantly greater than the officially reported bycatch of 458 whales for this period. This unregulated exploitation has serious implications for the survival of this genetically distinct coastal population. Although our capture-recapture model was developed for specific application to the Korean whale-meat markets, the exponential decay function could be modified to improve the estimates of trade in other wildmeat or fisheries markets or abundance of living populations by noninvasive genotyping.
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