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The report details the findings of recent surveys in Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Commercial whaling has been subject to a moratorium since 1986 under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling.

In South Korea, where whaling is banned, local consumption of whale meat is allowed if the whales are found dead as bycatch in fishing gear. The number of whales claimed to have been taken incidentally by South Korean fisherman in 1996 was greater than the number taken in each of the two years before South Korea banned commercial whaling in 1986. Whale meat was found openly on sale in five cities.

In Hong Kong, undercover investigators were promised whale meat at seven of 27 Japanese restaurants surveyed. In most cases, Japan was cited as the source.

Japan is the world's largest market for whale meat. Its legal domestic market is supplied by "scientific" whaling, bycatch and old stocks of frozen meat. However, the lack of an inventory of frozen stocks, and the current voluntary system of registering whale bycatch, create a loophole that makes detecting illegal whale meat in the market virtually impossible.

DNA testing of 57 whale meat samples collected in Japan by TRAFFIC investigators showed most of the samples to be minke whale, although meat from fin and Bryde's whales was also found. But whether the fin and Bryde's samples were from legal or illegal sources is unknown because of the loopholes in Japan's laws.

TRAFFIC found no evidence of a continuing market for large cetaceans in Taiwan.

"Our suspicions that both the Japanese and South Korean whale meat markets have inadequate controls have been confirmed" said Cassandra Phillips, WWF Cetaceans Co-ordinator. "The South Korean level of bycatch is alarming, while the Japanese market is fuelled by the huge amount of whale meat from Japan's scientific whaling in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary."

Japan is to press next month's meeting of CITES - the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species - to allow the resumption of trade in whale meat - a move which WWF opposes.

The TRAFFIC report calls on Japan and South Korea to clarify and strengthen their laws governing whale bycatch, and to institute a system by which legal and illegal whale meat could be distinguished by DNA testing.