Earthtrust's Saving Whales With DNA Project is
a cutting-edge strategy for ending the global black market in whale meat through
the use of DNA analysis, just as important now as when ET launched it. DNA technology is currently revolutionizing
many fields and it is poised to have a huge impact on the illegal
trade in endangered and protected species of whales. DNA analysis
is the only practical way to verify if a product in the marketplace
is a "legitimate" whale species (under IWC regulations)
or if it is from a highly endangered species. Earthtrust invented
this method protocol and introduced it to the world in dramatic
fashion. The success of Earthtrust's efforts to date, which includes
peer-reviewed research coupled with assessments of political repercussions,
has established this strategy as the best chance for conservation
of whales and dolphins - the only hope to beat the pirates who will still take whales when they can get away with it.
This a bold project. It seeks nothing less than the near-total global reform of illegal whaling. To accomplish this end, it encourages and involves internationally-renowned scientists utilizing biotechnology on the cutting edge of what is possible. It "marries" these scientists and research institutions to a professionally-conducted framework of "unannounced" international intelligence-gathering which is conducted by skilled investigators. The scientists go "on-site" in the country where the samples were obtained. They use state of the art miniaturized DNA-cloning equipment, to do polymerase chain reaction duplicates of the DNA. The results are analyzed using double-blind checking techniques which establish species identity using two different advanced mathematical models on separate parts of the DNA molecule. This work has expanded to many organizations and nations as the new "state of the art" since ET's introduction of it. But it's still a race against time.
A stepwise strategy of using DNA analysis to see whether the sale of "research whale meat" is masking the poaching of endangered species, was conceived of and developed by Earthtrust and is described in detail below. It involves bringing together a network of non-governmental organizations, research institutions, government representatives, and biotechnology manufacturing firms in a precedent-setting program. This strategy and these techniques have been endorsed by a broad spectrum of conservation experts and organizations. (see document "What the Experts Have Said" )
This strategy, endorsed by so many, may well be the only one that can truly assure a future for whales. It has already revolutionized the international oversight of whaling infractions, and the IWC itself. In the following pages, we will try to explain how this strategy is meant to affect this complex issue - and why we believe it can work.
Though there exists a growing body of international treaties,
laws, and conventions that ostensibly protect wildlife, there
is also a huge and growing "hidden economy" of organized
crime (with tacit government and industry collusion) that directly
hinders the effectiveness of these laws. Traditional conservation
strategies have focused on visible laws, conventions, and treaties
due to their accessibility, and great strides have been made in
these forums. However, the hidden economy--the real world--has
made these gains irrelevant in many cases. As anyone who has traveled
internationally knows, wildlife laws and treaties which do exist
usually lack effective intelligence-gathering and enforcement
provisions and are often simply ignored.
Thus we have a world with many types of protection "on the books" for wild species while the poaching and destruction of species goes on unabated. Unfortunately, this is becoming the rule rather than the exception.
Japan's ongoing consumption of endangered whales is one of the best examples. Through illegal trade, Japan has aided the decimation of populations of humpbacks and other whales while publicly remaining a member of the International Whaling Commission (IWC),which has pledged to protect these whales. A number of other nations have been implicated as suppliers: whaling has now become a de-centralized illicit activity much like drug smuggling, driven by "caviar level" market prices which can reach hundreds of dollars per pound.
This means that the "whaling moratorium" and the "whale sanctuaries" may be only as good as our ability to police them in retail markets. Until recently, Japan's policy has been to flatly deny any large-scale trade in illegal whalemeat. All meat looks alike, and Japan's government has each year dumped "research whaling" meat on the market to help explain the ongoing widespread availability of whalemeat.
The IWC has no enforcement power of its own, nor does it have
the authority or funding to poke around inside member nations.
Rather, the policies set at the IWC must be backed up by the governments
of the member nations.
In order to ensure that the samples purchased are truly representative, they must be purchased "undercover", which is to say without "tipping off" the seller that an investigation is underway. Several US agencies currently have, in the case of whaling, both the technical capability and the legal mandate to enforce whaling regulations. However, due to considerations of national sovereignty, it would be considered "spying" if a nation unilaterally sent in a DNA research team to do market testing in another nation.
As for independent DNA scientists, few have the funding, inclination, contacts, or training to engage in "undercover work" on behalf of conservation conventions like the IWC or CITES (Convention on International Trade In Endangered Species). Notably, no one conducted such an investigation before Earthtrust.
Thus, a gap has developed: there is a need for independent DNA reality-checking of the trade in endangered and restricted wildlife products (such as whales and dolphins), and the technology is now available to collect this information. But who is to do it? Until an international monitoring scheme is developed and incorporated into IWC regulations, the answer must to a large extent be Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO's). Practically speaking, at this point this means Earthtrust and its offshoots, funded by forward-looking individuals, foundations, and corporations.
Using the techniques demonstrated by Earthtrust, notably "in situ DNA amplification", it is now possible to gather accurate field data anywhere in the world, and compare genetic sequences to find out just which animals are being killed. As catalogs of DNA "type sequences" are built up, it becomes increasingly possible to trace back wildlife products to their species, area of origin, subspecies, sex, and even lineage. This is the single most powerful tool available to bring illegal trade to light and under control: even after an animal is killed and cut into tiny pieces, each piece can still tell the story of that animal's existence.
Earthtrust's Pioneering Work
on Whale Meat Using DNA Analysis
This ongoing action plan is an outgrowth of Earthtrust's original 1993-95 DNA initiatives. Anecdotal evidence of the widespread availability of "protected species" whalemeat, and dolphin meat sold as whalemeat, in the Japanese marketplace had been known for many years. Earthtrust program strategist Don White had since the mid-1980's sought to utilize DNA technology for market-testing of whalemeat. Working with Project Director Sue White and other Earthtrust staff, he designed an initial two-phase project which began in 1993 with the undercover collection of meat samples in Japan.
The second phase of this effort involved sending leading whale biologist C. Scott Baker to Japan to clone the DNA of the samples for export and analysis.
The results were reported to the Scientific Committee of the
IWC in May of 1994, and published in the journal "Science"
in September 1994. The data indicated the widespread availability
of meat from many types of "protected" whale, including
humpback and fin whales, as well as many samples of dolphin meat
falsely sold as "whale". To a large extent, it was this
study which has ignited the high-level international enthusiasm
for whale DNA as a tool for enforcement, and fundamentally changed the
way whaling infractions could be policed. The ripples are continuing to
spread into this century.
Why mtDNA and PCR are Useful in Saving the Whales
The cells of every animal each contain a miniature library of information, encoded in the base-pairs of nucleotides in molecules of DNA. There is enough information in each DNA molecule to build a complete creature from scratch. These information sequences are unique, and can potentially provide us with enormous amounts of information. In fact, DNA identification has become the pre-eminent tool of forensic criminology, since it can establish the identity of an individual from hairs or bodily fluids. It is a much simpler task to use DNA to identify species or subspecies of animals, since the genetic variation between different species and breeding populations is quite notable and unambiguous.
There are two types of DNA in a cell, "nuclear" and "mitochondrial". Due to the fact that it mutates less rapidly and passes only from the mother's side of the family, mitochondria DNA (mtDNA) analysis is very useful in establishing species and lineage. It is also reasonably quick and cheap. In the Earthtrust studies, different "control regions" of the mtDNA are compared with a catalog of "type" sequences known to come from specific whale species and populations. In this way, unambiguous determination can be made of the species, sex, and gross geographical origin of the unlucky whale or dolphin in the sample. As the catalog of "type" samples grows, increasingly exact localizations of the whale's breeding group and place of origin are possible.
However, there are practical difficulties which have prevented the use of this tool to gather intelligence within "whale-consuming" nations prior to the Earthtrust initiative. Chief among these is the wording of current CITES regulations, which gives the "office of management authority" of each CITES member nation the ability to delay - indefinitely - the export of tissue samples. Even non-controversial tissue samples exported from Japan can take more than 3 years to receive permits. Thus, CITES, which was designed to prevent the trade in endangered species, has in this case been used as an effective barrier to prevent international inspection of the whalemeat market.
This is where "in situ PCR" comes in. PCR stands for Polymerase Chain Reaction, which is necessary for all quantitative DNA studies. Simply put, PCR takes a few original DNA molecules and creates millions of exact copies by providing the proper chemical and temperature conditions for DNA to replicate itself. This many-million-fold amplification may be done by a person of the proper training with only a small suitcase of equipment: a PCR thermal "MiniCycler" and the necessary chemical reagents. The resulting "cloned" DNA may then be separated chemically from the original tissue sample. Since it is not whalemeat or a whale product but only a "chemical snapshot" of whale DNA, it is not subject to CITES restrictions. The amplified DNA may be legally shipped anywhere necessary for analysis. This makes it possible to conduct investigations and get results with a reasonable lag time. In the case of Japan, it is providing the first definitive look at a "whalemeat" market that has for decades been out of control.
Reform of CITES regulations is needed, to allow direct export of tiny DNA samples for analysis by international conservation conventions. Unless and until that happens, though, "in situ PCR" using the Earthtrust project protocols will be the main tool of those who wish to stop the illegal whale trade.
The Asahi Shimbun newspaper announced on November 9, 1994 that
in response to the Earthtrust study and foreign criticism, Japan
had begun its own program of DNA product testing... and that it
had already collected its samples. At the May 1995 IWC meeting,
Japan turned in preliminary results which showed multiple species
in the marketplace but did not find evidence as explosive as the
initial Earthtrust study.
Certainly, Japan's authorities had been sensitized to the potential embarrassment of illicit whalemeat for sale in its markets. However, Japan's new adoption of DNA market-testing does not necessarily reflect a change in national attitude. In fact, old conservation hands who have worked the IWC for many years predicted that Japan would first denounce the Earthtrust work, and then do a version of its own - with controlled results.
Thus, it is necessary to conduct ongoing undercover surveys of Japan's marketplace, and other whalemeat markets. This will provide the ongoing data to IWC decision makers, and will raise questions the inherent conflict of interest in any nation monitoring itself. . A disparity between results will presumably encourage IWC member nations to lean towards international verification instead of relying solely upon a nation's internal DNA testing.
the entire future of the IWC and such treaty organizations is now
cloudy. As human commerce transitions into a time of relative scarcity
and resource limitations, there will be no substitute for hard data.
Other organizations have now hired the technicians 'spun off' from the original ET campaign, and these people comprise the backbone of the international DNA effort on whaling.
The fact that dolphins are increasingly being sold as whalemeat
in Japan is noteworthy for both conservation and strategic reasons.
Based on the prices paid by Earthtrust investigators
for dolphin-sold-as-whale, the rate for a dolphin
sold on such a market is about $2800. This is enough to create
problems for dolphins not only in Japan, but potentially around
While all dolphins have been added to CITES Appendix 2, small cetaceans are not actively protected or otherwise managed by the IWC or any other body. There are many places around the world where dolphins may be caught easily en masse. If it remains easy to substitute dolphin for whale on Japan's market, there is no reason to think that market forces will not create a flow of dolphin meat into Japan from other areas of the world. This may already be occurring. In the '70's Japan set up numerous "local" operations in other countries to obtain whalemeat, and they are now doing similar deals in a number of fisheries. A system which swallowed up 48,000 Soviet humpbacks without detection (see article attached) will not blanch at importing dolphins if there is a market. For this reason, Earthtrust scientists will continue to develop and improve techniques for the identification of small cetacean tissue; and when possible we will send a small cetacean DNA specialist along with the primary whale DNA researcher.
It is significant that dolphin-sold-as-whale constitutes mislabeling, and there are a number of reasons - including risks of heavy-metal poisoning - that Japanese citizens may be expected to want to see this practice cease. It is important not just to identify products as coming from small cetaceans, but to identify WHICH small cetaceans, from which oceans, are being sold as whalemeat.
This practice is a significant danger to dolphins and must be addressed. DNA identification of these dolphins in the marketplace can provide an effective way of halting or greatly curtailing the practice... and may be in time to prevent significant international trade from developing.
A gap has developed: there is a need for DNA reality-checking
of the trade in endangered wildlife products (such as whales )
, and the technology is now available to collect this information.
But who is going to do it?
Whaling on "protected" whales is continuing, despite being banned by international conservation conventions. However, due to inherent constraints on treaty conventions, governments and scientists, it is difficult for them to monitor illegal trade in the marketplaces of other nations and this has not occurred.
Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO's) like Earthtrust, however, are not hindered by such constraints, and are in fact in an excellent position to utilize DNA analysis to police the trade in endangered wildlife products throughout the world.
Earthtrust is taking the initiative to try bringing more scientists and NGO's together to conduct these studies because this is a strategy which can save the most endangered whales. It can also set a precedent to establish real international conservation of wildlife species in a quantifiable, enforceable way. DNA is becoming widely accepted as a standard of truth by the people of the world, and the chance to take and hold this high ground is one we must seize.
Japan has conducted an international campaign to attempt to discredit the initial Earthtrust work, and is now doing its own. Japan has pressed for our DNA information to not be used at IWC meetings -- instead presenting its own studies. Japan is also taking the position that it interdicts most illegal whalemeat. This may only be effectively countered by initiatives from the NGO conservation community to investigate and define the ongoing channels of illegal whalemeat flowing into Japan and the content of its whalemeat markets.
The relatively new tool of DNA analysis has now demonstrated itself as an extremely powerful means of tracking and exposing the underground whalemeat industry. By building on this success and implementing the tactics described here, it is conceivable that whaling could be ended by the turn of the century.
Historic Precedents Being Established For Other Conservation Issues
In a broader sense, this project isn't just about whales and dolphins, and cannot be. By the very doing of this project, precedents are being established that will affect the way conservation is done into the next century, on mammals, birds, reptiles, and many other controlled species. These precedents cut deeply. They include:
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