Whales: Another Reason to Save Their Bacon

It might have been banned for 30 years, but hunting remains one of the biggest threats to whales worldwide. The continued breach of the international ban on whaling for the long-term survival of these gentle giants is deeply concerning. Not only that, their meat might be inadvertently poisoning consumers.

Last year’s meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) brought renewed attention to the persistent violation of the ban by some countries including, Japan, Iceland and Norway. Whilst most of the media coverage at the IWC focuses on the benefits for whale conservation, there is also a lesser-known and potentially fatal threat that is facing the consumers of whale and dolphin meat in these countries.

Unfortunately, over the last couple of centuries, concentrations of a number of chemical pollutants in the ocean have significantly increased. Once these pollutants have entered the marine environment it is inevitable that they will make their way into the fish and marine mammals that live there. The toxicological effects of pollutants like mercury, cadmium and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) not only pose a global threat to marine life but also pose a significant risk to human health. This problem is particularly exacerbated in marine mammals, which tend to accumulate higher levels of contaminants than other seafood. Studies over the past decade have revealed that whale and dolphin meat contains alarmingly high levels of these dangerous chemicals.

A minke whale swimming underwater. Minke whales are heavily targeted by whaling nations.Public domain image by NOAA.

A report by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) in 2015 tested 20 whale and dolphin products from Japan and found that mercury levels exceeded the legal limits in every sample. The effects of exposure beyond safe limits of mercury and other pollutants in humans have been well documented, with ingestion linked to a range of health problems including cardiovascular, immunological and reproductive effects. A separate study by scientists at the University of Hokkaido tested liver samples and similar to the EIA’s study, found that every sample exceeded the Japanese government’s legal limits for safe consumption1. In fact, one sample was so heavily contaminated with mercury that if a 70kg human ate just 0.003 grams they would exceed the safe recommended dose, whilst eating 700 grams would likely be enough to kill them. The level of mercury found in this sample was 5000 times over the limit for safe consumption, leading the authors of the study to conclude that “acute intoxication could result from a single ingestion”. There have been several similar studies into the safety of cetacean meat over the last decade and repeatedly, the analyses show levels of contaminants that far exceed the recommended consumption levels, posing a serious threat to human health.

Whale Bacon : One of the many whale meat products available in Japan, other products include whale jerky, pickled whale, smoked whale and liver.
Image by LonelyBob, used under a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

As highlighted in these studies, the problem is particularly pertinent in Japan, where the highest levels of dolphin and whale meat are consumed. Regrettably, it seems the government is currently failing in its role to protect consumers. The Japanese government has set permitted levels of mercury in seafood at 0.4 ppm (four times the level that the US deems safe), but worryingly, these limits don’t even apply to cetacean products, and so rising pollutant levels can go unmonitored and unregulated.

This is a stark contrast to the action taken in the Faroe Islands, where the medical authorities have recommended that pilot whale shouldn’t be consumed at all. On releasing the findings of the EIA’s 2015 study, Clare Perry, head of the EIA’s ocean campaign commented on the Japanese government’s role in consumer protection, “By continuing to allow Japanese consumers to buy and eat these toxic products in ignorance of the very real risks they pose, the government … are utterly failing in their duty of care”.

A pilot whale – the government in the Faroe Islands has deemed them no longer safe to eat because of the high levels of contaminants in their meat.
Image by Dirk Klaus, used under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

The Japanese population’s exceptionally high consumption of seafood has even been linked to their decreasing birth rate as a result of the effect of mercury exposure on fertility. A study by Yasunori Yoshimura of Keio University tested semen samples from 6000 Japanese men between 1970 and 2000, and found a 12% decrease in sperm count. Professor Yoshimura concluded that “Environmental chemicals that mimic human hormones could have a role in the decline in sperm counts” leading to speculation that contaminants in seafood could be responsible.

The issue of exposure to high levels of contaminants through the consumption of cetaceans is compounded further because many of the products are mislabeled. Several studies examining contamination levels of whale and dolphin products over the past decade have identified mislabeled products, including one study by Dr Frank Cipriano from Harvard University, which tested the DNA of 130 samples of ‘whale meat’2. The study revealed that 25% of the samples were labeled as a different species, with dolphin meat frequently being labeled as another less contaminated species, such as sperm or minke whale. Even if consumers are aware of the higher risks associated with eating a particular species of cetacean, the deliberate mislabeling of products takes away their opportunity to make an informed decision on the risk they are taking.

A dolphin hunt in Taiji, Japan.
Image by VanessaNYC07, used under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

In my opinion the cruelty of the hunts themselves and the conservation status of cetaceans should be enough to ban the sale of all whale and dolphin meat, but if not, then the health concerns should be. I am deeply concerned that despite several studies showing high levels of contaminants in these products, governments continue to support the slaughter of whales and dolphins. These toxic food products are dangerous to consumers, who in the most part are unaware of the potential health risks they are taking. Governments of whaling nations need to act now, if not to protect cetaceans then to protect their citizens.

References

1. Tetsuya Endo, Koichi Haraguchi and Masakatsu Sakata (2002) “Mercury and selenium concentrations in the internal organs of toothed whales and dolphins marketed for human consumption in Japan“, Science of The Total Environment 300(1-3), 15 – 22
2. Frank Cipriano and Stephen Palumbi (1999) “Rapid Genotyping Techniques for Idenfitication of Species and Stock Identity in Fresh, Frozen, Cooked and Canned Whale Products

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