An international moratorium on commercial whaling has been in place since 1986. But many people in Japan still consume cetaceans, particularly toothed whales. New research suggests that eating these whale products may have unexpected consequences. The results of a study that will appear in the June 15 edition of the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology indicate that packaged whale meat in Japan contains dangerously high levels of mercury.

Tetsuya Endo and his colleagues at the Health Sciences University of Hokkaido traveled around Japan between 2000 and 2002 and purchased fresh and frozen whale and dolphin meat from vendors and processors. They analyzed the total mercury content in samples of red meat, or muscle, which is the most popular whale product sold for human consumption in Japan. The researchers found that mercury levels in all 137 meat samples exceeded the guidelines of 0.4 part per million set by the Japanese government. In fact, samples of false killer whale and striped dolphin surpassed the regulations by 200 and 160 times, respectively. In total, the team identified nine different whale species and six types of dolphins and porpoises being sold as food, and determined that average mercury levels in meat from Northern cities were higher than those in samples bought in southern markets.

The authors suggest that guidelines, much like those instituted in the Faroe Islands in Denmark regarding consumption of pilot whales or the Food and Drug Administration's warning to pregnant women to avoid longer-living large fish because of potential mercury exposure, should be implemented in Japan. The metal has been linked to neurological defects and may damage a fetus's developing nervous system. "These particular meat samples were from packaged food products that someone would have eaten, if they had not been purchased for pollutant analysis," notes Frank Cipriano of San Francisco State University. "This is a clear signal that Japan has a major health problem that the government has not addressed."