Tracking down illegal whale meat through DNA

June 24, 2010 7:12:48 PM PDT
Bay Area environmentalists and scientists have been keeping a close eye on those international whaling talks going on this week in Morocco. The commission has focused heavily on whale hunting. Meanwhile, one Stanford biologist believes that DNA research could be critical to protecting the future of the species.

DNA testing was once the province of only the most advanced scientists. Now students at Stanford can be taught to do it in just a few hours.

"We can do this kind of DNA testing almost anywhere with just a little bit of equipment and a few supplies," said Professor Steve Palumbi.

Students in Palumbi's biology class are able to identify fish samples sold at sushi restaurants. However, their professor is using the same technology to protect whales.

"Smuggling and illegal whaling is the biggest threat to whales all over the world," he said.

For the last 24 years there has been an international ban on commercial whaling. But Japan has continued to kill hundreds of whales every year in what it calls a scientific hunt. Under international law, the meat from those whales can only be sold in Japan, but it is hard to monitor what is really happening.

Palumbi's team sets up portable genetics labs in Japanese hotel rooms. Then they buy whale meat for sale on the open market and run DNA tests.

"It gives us a very good sense of what populations of whales around the world are actually being hunted," he explaind.

You may remember earlier this year when a Santa Monica sushi restaurant was caught selling whale meat. That is absolutely illegal in the United States. It was DNA tests that determined the meat was from an endangered Sei whale. The only country known to be catching them is Japan.

"Whale smuggling is now bigger than it's ever been," said Palumbi. "So when we can actually find pieces of whale meat and prove with DNA that they were smuggled, you know the problem is a pretty big one."

Palumbi is director of Stanford University's Hopkins Marine Station in Monterey, the oldest marine lab on the West Coast. In addition to tracking whale meat, Palumbi's research team is using DNA to estimate whale populations.

"They spend most of their time under water. They spend most of their time off in the open ocean," he said. "Counting them is an incredibly difficult task."

And it is even harder to figure out how many whales were there before industrial hunting almost wiped them out. However, genetics could hold the answer.

"Written into the DNA of a population is a record of its history, of how big it is, and how it's changed, and we're learning to read that record now," said Palumbi.

That population record is critical. If the International Whaling Commission does eventually allow any commercial hunting, they will likely consider how the number of whales now compares to the number before large scale hunting began.

So how do you figure out how many whales there were 200 or 300 years ago? Most research uses old log books from whaling ships combined with estimates of how many whales there are now. But how reliable are those figures really? There is a lot of controversy about that.

Palumbi believes whale DNA is more accurate and it tells a very different story.

"We look at the genetic diversity of a whale population now and we discover a lot of genetic diversity in those animals that we didn't think should be there," he said. "And that implies there were more whales in the past than we thought."

Palumbi says some whale populations may have been many times larger than international estimates. A claim supported by historical accounts.

"In the late 1700s Jean de la Perouse is a explorer along this coast, writes about... there were so many whales in Monterey Bay that their breath created an annoying stench," he said.

And in the 1800s a noted whaling captain published his observations.

"Charles Scammon says that the gray whales were so common in Monterey Bay, they used to roll around in the surf," he said.

Like many other whale counts, Palumbi's findings are controversial. But what is clear is that DNA research is a powerful tool that could help whales survive the dangerous waters of international politics.

Many scientists and environmentalists would like to see the creation of an international registry that would collect and track the DNA of every whale killed, but pro-whaling countries have resisted that idea.

To find out more about Palumbi's research, visit palumbi.stanford.edu.

For information on the International Whaling Commission, visit iwcoffice.org.

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney.


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