Poison saves hunted whales

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By Geoffrey Lean, Environment Correspondent

By Geoffrey Lean, Environment Correspondent

9 January 2000

The whale may finally be saved from hunters - through being poisoned. Contamination from the pollution of the world's seas appears to be succeeding where environmentalists had failed. The people of Japan, the world's main whaling nation, are at last questioning the hunting of the leviathans after a major food scare.

After high levels of dangerous heavy metals and chemicals were found in whalemeat, Japanese scientists advised against eating it, so sales slumped. Now, Japanese retailers - including one 300-branch supermarket chain - have started removing all whalemeat from their shelves after the scientists recommended an "immediate ban on the sale of all contaminated products".

Research has shown that toxic chemicals can build up in whales and dolphins to 70,000 times the levels found in the waters in which they swim and feed, and can cause serious human health problems, including damage to the immune system, sterility, and "gender-bender" hormone disruptions.

The development has is an extraordinary twist to one of the oldest and most bitter environmental battles. Conservationists have been campaigning to stop whaling for more than 30 years, after unrestrained hunting brought many species, such as blue fin and humpback, to the verge of extinction.

Nearly 20 years ago, the environmentalists succeeded - in one of their first great international victories - in persuading the body that regulates world whaling, the International Whaling Commission, to impose an indefinite moratorium.

But, ever since, Japan has exploited a loophole, which allows whaling for "scientific purposes", to enable it to continue its annual hunt and provide whalemeat for its people.

Meanwhile, it has been gradually winning the argument for a resumption of commercial whaling as the species it hunts - the minke whale - is abundant and would be in no danger of being seriously depleted. It has also used financial aid to persuade developing countries to join the whaling commission and support it.

The discovery of the contamination of whalemeat, however, threatens to undermine its campaign. Last year, two Japanese toxicologists and two geneticists from Harvard University analysed more than 100 samples of the meat bought in restaurants, shops and markets across Japan - in a study co-ordinated by the British-based Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society and the Swiss Coalition for the Protection of Whales.

They were astonished at the results. About half of all the samples proved to be contaminated with heavy metals or dangerous chemicals - including mercury, dioxins, DDT and PCBs - above the maximum levels allowed for human consumption under Japanese and international standards.

They also found that a quarter of the samples were sold under false pretences, in fact containing meat from other species such as dolphins and porpoises - and, in one case in 20, from fully protected species such as humpback and sperm whales. More than three-quarters of these mis-advertised products proved to be for human consumption.

Japan's Fisheries Agency insisted then that whalemeat sold to consumers was not seriously contaminated. But in November, a separate study by the country's official Environment Agency confirmed that whales and dolphins were highly polluted.

Further research suggested, in the words of one scientist, that eating just three ounces of dolphin meat or one ounce of liver "would cause significant health problems".

Meanwhile, a seven-year study of children in the Faroe Islands has found that those whose mothers had eaten contaminated whalemeat during pregnancy were much more likely to suffer brain and heart damage.

A coalition of citizens' groups was formed last month to press the Japanese government to take immediate action. The fishing industry is deeply worried that the outrage will cause more cancellations of orders and drive down the price of meat from the whales caught by "scientific" whaling, dealing a devastating blow to the industry.

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