Japanese officials have announced that at least two minke whales caught by whalers off the coast of Hokkaido have been found to contain levels of radioactive cesium, likely as a result of the accident at Fukushima nuclear plant that was set in motion by the March 11 tsunami.

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The whales were caught, not by the “research” fleet that recently returned to the North Pacific, but by vessels conducting so-called small-type whaling, which operate closer to shore and which this year pursued a self-assigned quota of 100 minke whales. Initial plans were for the fleet to operate more or less directly off Fukushima, but understandably given the circumstances, the vessels moved north to Kushiro.

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According to an official with the Japanese Fisheries Agency, one whale had a cesium reading of 31 becquerels per kilogram, and the other a reading of 24.3 becquerels per kilogram. Both whales were killed about 650 km north of Fukushima; however, although the official stated that it was likely the contamination was a result of the nuclear accident, whale meat has not previously been tested for radioactive contamination.

The official insisted that the levels were well below “safe” levels of 500 becquerels; but, as Elizabeth Grossman wrote in April on Yale’s Environment 360 blog, much uncertainty continues to surround the impact of radioactive materials in marine ecosystems:

How this continuing contamination will affect marine life, or humans, is still unclear. But scientists agree that the governments of Japan, the United States, and other nations on the Pacific Rim need to ramp up studies of how far this contamination might spread and in what concentrations.

Either way, the discovery of any level of radioactivity in whale meat, and the fact that the government has elected to release the contaminated meat into the marketplace, is hardly likely to inspire consumer confidence, or revive demand for a food that has been less and less attractive to the Japanese populace in recent years. Whale meat stockpiles in the country were reported to have reached a record 6,000 tonnes last year; this latest news seems unlikely to help reduce those those stockpiles any time soon.

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IMAGE 1: Minke cut into steaks (Corbis).

IMAGE 2: A minke whaleburger (Corbis).