Innovation in DNA Testing Technology Could Provide Faster Way To Illicit Illegal Shark Fins

Source: Hakai Magazine/Alastair Bland 

Photo: Nancy Boucha

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For customs agents and fisheries regulators fighting the shark fin trade, a recent innovation in DNA testing technology could significantly tilt the playing field in their favor.

A group of American scientists has developed a way to cheaply and easily determine whether a tissue from an unidentified shark product came from a protected species. Compared to existing screening systems, which take days or longer, the new approach takes only a few hours.

The new tool consists of a step-by-step testing system, which the scientists outlined in a recent study, that can be used to spot the DNA of nine of the 12 shark species considered vulnerable or threatened by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

“This tool can help countries meet their CITES obligations,” says Rebecca Ng, a specialist in marine wildlife and ocean health with Paul G. Allen Philanthropies, the organization that funded the project.

The testing protocol, which is being trialed in Hong Kong, can be run on readily accessible mobile DNA screening equipment. The program involves running tissue samples from unidentified sharks past a digital lineup of DNA sequences from the nine CITES listed shark species and can make matches right on the spot. Hong Kong is historically the world’s hub of shark fin distribution, and customs agents there are tasked with inspecting suspect shipments as large as 10 tonnes.

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Photo: Nancy Boucha