Eco-espionage

Eco-espionage
Date:31 December 2008

Environmental sleuths use DNA identification to unmask a hidden world of commercial whaling.

The growing databases of animal genes have given wildlife researchers a powerful tool to identify new species, protect endangered animals and even catch cheats at fishing tournaments. Scott Baker and his colleagues at Oregon State University have combined genetic research with spycraft to calculate accurate numbers of whales consumed in Korea and Japan.

The researchers don’t chase down fishing ships; they test the DNA of whale meat to determine if more whales are being killed than are reported to international regulators. Asian colleagues posing as consumers purchase the meat in neighbourhood stores. The researchers cannot transport meat from protected whales across borders, so they set up mobile DNA labs in local hotel rooms. There, they extract and sequence DNA from the meat to identify species and individual whales.

Results reported to the International Whaling Commission prove that both nations killed more whales than they admitted. In Korea, the team calculated how long the meat of identifiable individual minke whales remained on the shelves and extrapolated that 827 whales passed through Korean markets between 1999 and 2003, about twice as many as the country reported.