Whale meat is important commercially in Japan, where prices range up to $150 per kilogram. Until recently, it has not been possible to compare the makeup of the retail market with expectations based on IWC rules because most whale products are unidentifiable once they reach local markets (e.g., sliced bacon, dried marinated whale jerky, canned meat). However, DNA sequences can now be used to identify the species of whale on international markets (Baker and Palumbi 1994, 1996), making it possible to evaluate compliance of the retail market with international expectations. These DNA results show that enforcement of international regulations is too lax to adequately protect the world's whale populations. About half of the whale products on the Japanese market are from the expected minke whale populations. The other half is made up of unprotected species of small toothed whales (dolphins, beaked whales, porpoises) and prohibited baleen whales (Baker et al. 1996). To date, most of the world's baleen whales have been found in the retail market, including humpback whales, blue whales, fin whales, Bryde's whales, and northern minke whales (legal only since 1994). Blue whales are particularly threatened, with an estimated worldwide population of 4,000 animals, yet they continue to be part of the retail market.
These animals are entering the market under the cover of legal products, but they are probably taken by illegal whaling and shipping. Recently, information from the former Soviet fishing fleet has shown that tens of thousands of whales were taken illegally in the 1960s and 1970s without notice by the international community (Yablokov 1994). Whale-meat smuggling may be a lucrative business, and reports of confiscation of illegal whale shipments surface regularly (Baker and Palumbi 1996).
International agreements have led to recovery of many of the world's whale populations. However, enforcement of existing regulations is hampered by the scale of the oceans and the complexity of international shipping. Illegal activities dilute efforts to manage whale populations scientifically and threaten the balance of national priorities on which international agreements are based.
The problems of the socioeconomic incentives in fisheries have been widely discussed. One problem is uncertainty, which can lead to risk-prone behavior. Another related (and better-known) problem is that of the "commons," where a lack of clear property rights leads to a difference between individual and short-term interests on the one hand and societal and long-term interests on the other. The classic statement of this "open-access" problem came from an analysis of fishing (Gordon 1954): it is in the interest of an individual fisher to increase catch, but it is not necessarily in the interest of the whole fishing community. Other problems, such as overcapitalization, derive from this one. A further problem is that some incentives, such as those derived from personal and societal goals, culture, and lifestyle, are not easily identified or incorporated into the bioeconomic models often used to develop fishery-management plans.