By Lee Anna Sherman
In the seaside village of Taiji, Japan, there’s a jarring juxtaposition: Jolly-looking tour buses shaped like happy dolphins putter up and down the streets by day, while by night fishermen secretly slaughter hundreds of panic-stricken dolphins in a nearby inlet and sell them as meat.
This sinister irony permeates the Academy Award-winning movie, The Cove, produced by the Ocean Preservation Society. Scientific adviser and cast member Scott Baker is delighted by the accolades, not because they widen his fame outside science circles but because recognition from the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards and the Sundance Film Festival means broader exposure for the movie, which critics have characterized as an “eco-thriller.” That, in turn, means more international pressure to end the carnage.
“There has been tremendous resistance to the movie in Japan,” says Baker, a leader in international efforts to uncover black-market trade in products from protected species of whales and dolphins. “The Tokyo International Film Festival initially turned down the film, but under pressure from American actors like Ben Stiller, they agreed to allow one showing outside the formal festival. The international press was relegated to the back of the auditorium.”
Baker, associate director of OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute, acts as the film’s scientific voice on dolphin biology and the health risks to humans who eat dolphin meat, which is high in mercury (mercury levels are concentrated in organisms that are, like dolphins, high up in the food chain). As the world’s first scientist to use DNA to identify whale species being butchered for human consumption, Baker appears in the movie both as an expert “talking head” and as a DNA detective, hunkered over a portable genetics lab in a Tokyo hotel testing samples purchased, covertly, in Japanese fish markets.
“We spent days filming in that hotel room — a room not much bigger than my office,” recalls Baker. He describes director Louie Psihoyos as “visionary but meticulous,” shooting “tons of film” to tell the story of the annual killing of more than 1,200 dolphins in Taiji.
Baker’s science-based scenes of DNA identification and his comments on the threat of mercury contamination in dolphin meat are a counterpoint to the movie’s main storyline: An intrepid team of cinematographers and activists (including the dolphin trainer of the 1960s TV series Flipper), wearing camouflage and night-vision goggles, risk arrest and even death to capture video and underwater acoustics during the slaughter.
Besides being a gripping piece of filmmaking, the movie highlights a heartbreaking issue of massive proportions: the international black market in wildlife. From elephant tusks and rhino horns to bighorn sheep antlers and panther pelts, the illegal trade in endangered animals is worth an estimated $5 billion to $8 billion a year worldwide. Cetaceans are lucrative commodities in that grisly enterprise. In Japan or Korea, for instance, a whale killed in coastal fishing nets can sell for more than $100,000 wholesale. Dolphins, too, bring in fat cash: Aquariums pay $150,000 for a live animal.
But it’s the dead ones that most worry Baker, a longtime delegate to the International Whaling Commission (IWC). Despite the IWC’s 1986 moratorium on whaling, Japan, Korea, Iceland and Norway continue the hunt, either under the guise of science or under an “objection” (basically, a rejection of the commission’s authority to regulate whaling). Loopholes in the commission’s 1986 moratorium, it turns out, are big enough for a whale to swim through — and die in. A “scientific whaling” loophole allows a limited number of whales to be killed for research and the remains to be sold. A “bycatch whaling” loophole allows fishermen to sell whales and dolphins that become entangled in fishing nets. Hundreds of protected animals die unreported each year because of the laxity of IWC rules and regs, Baker says. “The continued sale of ‘legal’ whale products acts as a cover for other illegal, unreported and undocumented hunting,” he argues.
Still, whales are afforded at least some measure of protection by the IWC. Dolphins, on the other hand, have none at all from the IWC or other international conventions (although many individual nations have outlawed dolphin killing).
Forensic genetics is a potent weapon in the fight to save wildlife. Baker’s technique — a method of quickly amplifying segments of DNA called a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) — is the same one used by crime-scene investigators to match “perps” to body fluids, hair and other tissue they leave behind. PCR is used for all sorts of investigations, from nabbing moose poachers to detecting cystic fibrosis in eight-celled human embryos. Indeed, Baker and his Ph.D. student Merel Dalebout were using PCR in 2002 when they discovered a new species of beaked whale, the first new whale species in 15 years and the first to be described primarily by DNA.