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Scientists warn of emerging form of unregulated whaling in Asia

AP Photo/IFAW/File

(Read caption) A minke whale surfaces in the Pacific. Marine scientists warn that South Korea and Japan may be taking more minke whales than they are officially reporting, a result of laws in those countries that allow whales snagged as by-catch to be sold commercially. The results are based on DNA analysis of randomly selected containers of whale meat.

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It's tough being a whale these days.

The International Whaling Commission has just wrapped up its annual meeting in Portugal with a whaling ban still intact, but with fissures deepening between the save-the-whales crowd and countries such as Japan, which wants to see commercial whaling reinstated, at least on a limited basis.

It's enough to prompt the commission's new chairman to suggest that the 53-year-old organization may need to rethink its purpose. Cristian Maquieira, the new chairman, told the Associated Press:

"We have to re-establish a consensus on what the IWC is and should do, and there are at least two contradictory perceptions to answer that question."

And along comes a new study suggesting that Japan's fishing operations are taking far more minke whales a year as by-catch than the Japanese government is officially reporting. Based on DNA samples taken from commercially sold whale meat, a team from Oregon State University and the University of California at Irvine estimate that by-catch takes in 150 whales a year on average -- about the same number the Japanese government officially acknowledges taking in its own scientific whaling program.

Researchers suspect the high numbers of minke by-catch may be more than accidental. Japan and South Korea are the only two IWC members that allow whales snagged as by-catch to be sold commercially.

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