For most Americans, eating a relative of Flipper or Keiko would be as unthinkable as dining on Lassie or Smokey Bear. But in some seafaring cultures, dolphins and whales are traditional foods, sold in supermarkets right alongside the fish fillets and beef cutlets.
The sale of meat from whales and dolphins accidentally drowned in fishing nets or left over from “scientific” whaling operations is allowed in some countries as “exceptions” to the international moratorium on commercial whaling. Trouble is, neither customers nor enforcers eyeing the packages of fresh or frozen steaks or stew meat can distinguish a minke whale taken in the scientific whaling program from, say, an illegally killed gray or humpback whale.
That’s where Scott Baker comes in.
The OSU conservation geneticist is one of the world’s foremost experts in using DNA to identify specific populations of cetaceans — whales, dolphins and porpoises — and thereby detect the unlawful sale of protected species. Baker travels frequently to Japan and South Korea, where he holes up in cramped hotel rooms in Tokyo or Seoul with his portable genetics lab, listening for a knock at the door. When the secret code is tapped out, he cracks open the door and a local collaborator, who has been covertly trolling grocery stores and sushi bars, furtively passes him a bagful of bloody meat for analysis.
This cloak-and-dagger science was documented in the Academy Award winning eco-thriller The Cove, in which Baker was cast (see sidebar).
“No scientist has contributed more to our understanding of cetacean genetics than Scott,” says Phillip Clapham, a cetacean scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “In particular, his innovative use of genetic analysis to detect and track illegal or unreported trade in whales and other wildlife has given scientists and managers a powerful tool to assess the extent of this traffic and its impact on populations. He’s been one of the major players in the field of whale biology worldwide.”
Catcher in the Bay
Height, as everyone knows, is an advantage in basketball games and presidential elections. But in marine science? Surprisingly, it can be — at least at New College of Sarasota, Florida. For a pioneering dolphin study launched while he was a student there, Baker’s 6-foot-4-inch stature gave him an edge over his shorter classmates. That’s because he could stand in the shallow waters of Sarasota Bay, his head well above the surface, while helping to use a seine net for the capture and release of wild dolphins.
“The researchers tended to enlist tall undergraduates for the hard work,” Baker says, laughing.
As a kid in Alabama, Baker vacationed on the Gulf Coast every summer with his dad (an electrical engineer and decorated veteran of Omaha Beach and the Battle of the Bulge) and his mom (an activist and humanitarian in the nuclear freeze movement and many other causes). “When you live in a place like Birmingham, the Gulf of Mexico is sort of like paradise — except for the mosquitoes and sand flies and jellyfish,” he says, grinning. The Gulf was where he first became intrigued by dolphins. But it was in that shallow Florida bay as he wrapped his arms around individual bottlenoses to process them for the study — weighing, measuring, tagging, drawing blood, taking tissue samples — where the animals etched a deeper impression on his psyche.
“Those kinds of things change your life,” says Baker, who left New Zealand’s University of Auckland in 2006 to become associate director of OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute. “How many people get to have an experience like that — capturing and releasing wild dolphins for a groundbreaking scientific study?” He adds, “We caught a lot of dolphins.”
Read more on this story at Terra Magazine
Photo by Dr. Mridula Srinivasan, NOAA/NMFS/OST/AMD
See more photos at NOAA Photo Library's Photostream