The Internet Giant That Is Selling Toxic Whale and Dolphin Meat in Japan

An environmental group says that mercury-contaminated marine mammal products are for sale on Yahoo Japan.

A pod of pilot whales. (Photo: Roland Seitre/Getty Images)

Apr 8, 2015· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

Whale and dolphin meats being sold for human consumption on Yahoo Japan have potentially dangerous levels of poisonous mercury, a report released on Wednesday charged.

Of 13 whale and dolphin products purchased online, all contained mercury levels that exceeded the Japanese government’s recommendation of 0.4 parts per million or fewer, according to the group Environmental Investigation Agency, which commissioned the testing. EIA described Yahoo Japan as “the country’s largest online marketplace for whale and dolphin meat.”

The company is a joint venture between Yahoo and Softbank.

Yahoo's American representatives did not respond to requests for comment.

A sample of dried pilot whale meat purchased from Yahoo Japan contained 19 ppm of mercury—47.5 times over the government safety limit. A pilot whale rib cut contained slightly less at 18 ppm, while pilot whale spare ribs contained 13 ppm, and roasted whale contained 10 ppm. Baird's beaked whale jerky and stew tested at 3.7 ppm and 7.2 ppm, respectively.

Some of the store-bought cetacean meat products also had excessive mercury levels, according to the report. Dolphin meat contained 11 ppm of mercury, dolphin stomach meat contained 2.8 ppm, and whale intestines contained 10 ppm. These products were labeled as originating from Taiji, Japan, the location of controversial annual dolphin hunts.

“This is yet another reason why whales and dolphins should not be considered as food,” EIA Oceans Campaign head Clare Perry said in an email. “Their existence is threatened by a myriad of human caused problems, including chemical pollution to such an extent that it actually makes them toxic.”

Perry said that Yahoo Japan has not responded to her group’s requests for a dialogue and that “Yahoo US has been unable or unwilling to exert sufficient pressure on Yahoo Japan to take any action.”

It’s unclear whether mercury levels in whale and dolphin meat have increased over time, Perry said. “We are still comparing these data to our previous studies, but it’s hard to say with a fairly limited data set. There are studies showing rising mercury levels in some fish species and Baird’s beaked whales have higher than average levels over the 10-plus years we’ve been testing.”

Overexposure to mercury in food can harm neurological development in fetuses, infants, and young children, leading to problems with learning and memory, among other issues. Among adults, mercury poisoning from food increases health risks, including hypertension and coronary artery disease.

Canned albacore tuna sold in the United States contains an average of 0.32 ppm of mercury, while canned light tuna has 0.12 ppm, according to the Environmental Defense Fund.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Food and Drug Administration jointly recommend that young children should eat only one to three ounces per week of albacore tuna. Women who are or might become pregnant, or are breast-feeding, should eat no more than six ounces of albacore tuna per week and avoid entirely four fish known to have high levels of mercury: Gulf of Mexico tilefish, shark, swordfish, and king mackerel.

Animal rights activists have long contended that alerting Japan’s consumers to the dangers of mercury contamination in whale and dolphin meat would stifle demand, eventually driving the industry out of business. So far, that hasn’t happened.

Some activists believe the Japanese government is blocking the message.

“Consumers in Japan are not told the truth about the serious health risks linked to consumption,” said Ric O’Barry, head of the Dolphin Project and star of The Cove, a documentary on the Taiji drives.

O’Barry, in collaboration with the Japanese group Elsa Nature Conservancy, has tested dolphin and whale meat since 2003 and found all of it containing dangerously high levels of mercury as well as polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs—human-made compounds that can cause cancer and other health problems.

“The annual dolphin slaughter is not only an issue of animal rights,” O’Barry said. “It’s also one of human rights."

If the Japanese government isn’t informing the public, consumer and parenting groups should step in to fill the gap, according to Perry. Meanwhile, more pressure should be put on purveyors of the toxic products, she said.

“We look to the major retailers like Yahoo Japan to set an example and ban the sale of contaminated whale, dolphin, and porpoise products,” Perry said. “Many retailers already have. Japan’s leading retailers, such as Aeon, Ito-Yokado, and Seiyu, do not sell these products.”