The number of whales killed and sold as ‘incidental bycatch’ along the coasts of Japan and South Korea may equal the amount of whales caught through legal whaling, threatening populations of minke, western gray, humpbacks, fin whales, and Bryde’s whales.
“The sale of bycatch alone supports a lucrative trade in whale meat at markets in some Korean coastal cities, where the wholesale price of an adult minke whale can reach as high as $100,000. Given these financial incentives, you have to wonder how many of these whales are, in fact, killed intentionally.” – Scott Baker, Marine Mammal Institute
Although only about 150 whales are caught each year in Japan’s legal whaling industry, another 150 may enter the markets of Japan and South Korea from animals killed as bycatch in other fishing activities. Japan and South Korea are the only countries that allow the commercial sale of bycatch whales, and a survey of whale products on the market leads some scientists to believe that large amounts of it is being labeled bycatch.
Scott Baker, a cetacean expert with the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University, and Vimoksalehi Lukoscheck, of the University of California-Irvine, presented the results of a study at a meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in Portugal, which found that nearly 46% of the minke whale products they examined in Japanese markets originated from a coastal population. The coastal population of minke whales has distinct genetic characteristics, and is under protection by international agreements.
Baker and his colleagues have developed genetic methods for identifying the species of whale-meat products in order to determine the origin of the animals, which helps when trying to determine the actual number of whales killed for market each year.
Japan has reported only about 19 minke whales killed through bycatch in recent years, but new regulations covering the commercial sale of bycatch whales have been approved, and the number of whales reported as killed is on the rise. The country wants to begin a coastal whaling program, and is looking to the IWC for an agreement on the issue, but Baker says that any such arrangement should be scrutinized because there are no accurate population counts to determine the level of a sustainable harvest.
Illegal whale hunting can be done using the cover of bycatch labeling, but no one knows the extent to which it occurs. Korean police seized 50 tons of minke whale meat in Ulsan in 2008 as a result of an investigation into an organized illegal whaling operation, and this may only represent a small portion of the whale poaching that actually goes on.
Market surveys found other protected species for sale, including humpback and fin whales, but one species in particular, the western gray whale, is at greater risk in these illegal whaling operations due to its small population, estimated to be only 100.
For an introduction to the serious impact of commercial bycatch on ocean populations, watch this quick overview: