Mission: Make Large-scale Pirate Whaling Impossible

The Yakuza-controlled docks fed a high-priced end market for illegal smuggling of endangered whales.

Where were the endangered whales disappearing to?

By the mid-90’s, with local whaling by rogue nations exposed by Avon ladies and other stratagems, there should have been no endangered-species whalemeat making its way to high-priced international markets.  Japan, the highest-priced of all, claimed to sell only meat from accidentally-stranded animals and from the ongoing “research whaling” kill of minke whales.


ET had long contended that “research whaling” was entirely bogus, and existed largely to provide cover for a continuing flux of illegal meat into Japan. The way “research whaling” worked (and is still working today!), is that Japan unilaterally declares it needs to “research” certain whales, where “research” consists of shooting them with exploding harpoons, cutting them into bits, and selling them on the open market in Japan. This doesn’t violate the letter of IWC rules, which underscores – if such was needed – that the IWC wasn’t meant to be a conservation body.

The problem was that the arcane distribution systems within Japan, from docks to markets, are intricately networked by the Yakuza and impossible to trace back.  ET had long wanted to use DNA sequencing to break the deadlock, but there was a twist which made it into an impossible mission.


DNA should be the answer – but it was impossible to use without breaking the law and violating the CITES treaty, which is why nobody had ever done it.

The CITES treaty exists to prevent the extinction of endangered and threatened species. Japan’s markets, the final resting place for a bewildering array of endangered species parts, were vital to penetrate.

Ah, but there really isn’t a clear divide between Japan’s government, corporations, and organized crime; they work quite closely together.  For instance, between 1947 and 1991, Japan and the USSR both conducted unrestrained whaling on endangered species, colluding with double-book accounting to hide the eradication of endangered whales and (after 1973) swapping crooked observers. Russian scientists alerted the world to the deception after the USSR collapsed, but Japan’s government and corporations faced no penalties for depopulating the world of whales.

So it wasn’t entirely a surprise when Japan perverted the CITES treaty to prevent outsiders from sampling and analyzing whalemeat and other such products. The “Office of Management Authority” or OMA for a nation must approve any exports of animal tissue or products derived from animal tissue. So it became a classic “impossible mission”, with environmental crimes neatly hidden by environmental treaties. The repercussions on Japanese citizens, labs, or universities for doing such “espionage” would be severe, and outside nations which took samples would be in illegal violation of the CITES treaty. It really was considered an impossible nut to crack, which is why nobody else had cracked it.

We analyzed it, and the problems were threefold. First, taking meat samples with proper verification and chain-of-evidence for scientific credibility, and preserving them with DNA intact, meant a full-on undercover operation. This was fairly minor for ET, but we used expert agents trained by U.S. agencies, along with ET volunteers in Japan, who did undercover video of all meat buys.

It would be possible in principle to conduct PCR amplification of the samples in a hotel room, without using a commercial lab within Japan. But this would require the ability to transport an entire DNA-cloning operation in a suitcase, which hadn’t been done.

For credibility, the amplification and sequencing would have to be done by leading scientists and published in the top peer-reviewed journals. Anything less would have far less impact. But how to get top academics to go undercover and do sequencing in a Japanese hotel room?

Oh, and we had zero budget available. The project would have to be underwritten largely out-of-pocket by Don & Sue White if it was to happen at all, which meant low budgets.

But above and beyond all this, there was a more basic problem: PCR amplification products were still interpreted by CITES to be “derived from” animal tissue, and this phrasing meant that amplified DNA could not be legally exported without Japan’s OMA permission, which would be a “when hell freezes over” deal.

So the entire secret project was undertaken on multiple levels. While undercover teams were collecting samples, ET enlisted top cetacean DNA scientists in the undercover expedition.  Sue White took on the task of convincing DNA amplification equipment maker MJ Labs to donate the equipment despite not being able to tell them what it would be used for. They had to be content with “something really cool”.  And the DNA scientist would receive the PCR equipment in lieu of salary.


Whale DNA expert C. Scott Baker went undercover for ET, amplifying DNA in hotel rooms.

And in parallel, ET worked with the CITES authorities of other top member nations to quietly change the interpretation of PCR product as “derived from” tissue. It was more a chemical snapshot than a byproduct, since no molecules of the original meat were required for the final PCR product. And we got it done. By the time of the sting, CITES had officially changed its wording on the status of PCR-amplified samples.

The results stunned the world and revolutionized the policing of whaling infractions, dealing a huge blow to organized-crime “business as usual”. Published in journals like Science and Nature, timed to hit during the meeting of the International Whaling Commission, it caught Japan flat-footed, showing large amounts of fresh endangered whalemeat in the markets, as well as dolphin meat and other species. ET’s followup work continued the exposes, as well as demonstrating clearly that one needn’t kill whales for “research”; a small bit of skin will tell most of a whale’s story.

The ET-developed protocols have since become a default world standard for monitoring whaling and wildlife infractions, and led to the creation of a Harvard genetics lab and other offshoots. In one campaign, ET made the world a tougher place for pirate whalers.


As it turned out, there was nothing impossible involved; there were just a number of intractable situations of different sorts which had to be solved simultaneously. It required a group with the contacts and credibility to get the written interpretations of the world’s foremost endangered species treaty changed. A group which could conduct credible undercover sample buys using espionage techniques. A group willing and able to try something technological which had never been done before, and to convince some of the world’s top scientists to indulge in a bit of cloak & dagger. A group integrated enough with the functioning of the CITES treaty to get the interpretation of PCR products changed. A group with enough discipline to sit on its information for the better part of a year so it could be broken to maximum effect in major science journals and in the IWC scientific committee.

The reason it had never been done is that there was simply no other group with the expertise and cross-discipline credibility to have done it. Pieces of it, but not all of it; and it could only have worked with all aspects in play at once, in secrecy.  And it took some self-confidence, since the entire plan would have fallen apart if ET had failed to change an interpretation of the world’s foremost wildlife treaty in the nick of time.

This is the sort of thing that changes the world: good analysis, good plans, and disciplined execution. And a bit of audacity. A project which really IS impossible for everyone else becomes just a matter of logistics and sub-goals.

Side-stories and anecdotes

The Japan Fisheries Agency, and Japan’s IWC Commissioner Kazuo Shima  publicly claimed on several occasions that ET Director Don White was the leader of a secret US government spy agency, since they said no real NGO could do what ET kept doing.

His fisheries agency was still smarting from ET having wrapped up their huge driftnet fleets in ’91, which Japan correctly attributed to ET in their major counter PR blitz by their dedicated PR firm Tele-Press.

At the IWC meeting where Susie White was the accredited ET observer, Shima took her to task saying “Bad NGO! Bad NGO!”

Still, we’ll take it as a compliment.