Scientists Shed Light on South Korea’s Whaling Secret

New research led by Oregon University’s Dr. Scott Baker confirms a long-held suspicion that South Korea is ignoring "unintended" whaling. Baker’s team used DNA fingerprinting of minke whale meat to determine how many individual whales were killed in recent years as the alleged bycatch of South Korean fishing nets.

Researchers analyzed samples of whale meat collected from a selection of supermarkets in South Korean coastal cities from 1999 to 2003. It was discovered that the 289 samples were from 205 different whales, although a catch of only 458 whales was reported to the South Korean authorities for that period.

"Since the average market ‘half-life’ of whale meat is six weeks, at most, we should have found far fewer individuals," Baker said. Researchers used a capture-recapture analysis method to estimate that South Korean fisherman may have realistically caught as many as 827 individuals.

South Korea’s consistently high minke whale bycatch figures—and the fact that the meat is sold commercially—imply that the country is circumventing the 20-year-old International Whaling Committee (IWC) moratorium on commercial whaling. Under IWC rules, the sale of meat from accidentally captured animals is permitted, as long as fishermen report their catches to the government. However, it is clear from Baker’s results that South Korea is flouting the rules.

The IWC has taken steps to confront South Korea about its high bycatch figures, but the issue will not be addressed successfully until the country’s government takes the issue to task.