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DNA Fingerprinting for Conservation and Management

SharkPIs: Dr. Mahmood Shivji, Nova Southeastern University*, Dr. Demian Chapman, and Dr. Ellen Pikitch, Institute for Ocean Conservation Science

*External grantee

Completed 2006

Research supported by the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science led to development of sophisticated DNA forensic techniques that U.S. enforcement agents now use to detect and prosecute the illegal sale of shark fins and carcasses. The “Sharks Fingerprinting” project has created a practical genetic monitoring system that equips the United States and international authorities with a robust means of detecting fishery violations and deterring illegal fishing of protected species like the Great White Shark and “out-of-season” shark species.

Scientists from Nova Southeastern University’s Guy Harvey Research Institute Research and the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science together developed genetic markers that can identify 26 distinct shark species – from hammerheads to great whites -- based upon the DNA fingerprint that is unique to each shark. The team devised rapid, low-cost tests that use these markers. The identification system is so sensitive that it can decisively determine what species of shark was killed for a particular bowl of shark fin soup.

The DNA forensic markers developed partly during this project are routinely used to assist National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s law enforcement agents in their fisheries enforcement activities. We have conducted over 20 forensic identification shark cases for NOAA to date. These cases have revealed the illegal landings and trade in several prohibited shark species, including white, sand tiger, basking, dusky and night sharks. More than $200,000 in fines have been assessed for infractions uncovered using these methods.

One of the most significant problems with monitoring the trade in shark products and thus preventing exploitation of protected species, had been the difficulty in identifying detached body parts and processed products accurately to species level. Our innovative DNA markers have improved the effectiveness of shark conservation and management in the United States.

The DNA identification techniques have also made it possible to concretely track the amount of each species being caught, and to devise global estimates of the shark fin trade. This critical information helped us to bring about the listing of Great White Sharks on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Appendix II, which allows trade only with a permit. The forensic methods are also being adopted for use internationally. The Singapore Government’s Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority sent one of their scientists to Dr. Mahmood Shivji’s lab in March 2008 to be trained in these forensic methods and equipped to detect trade in CITES shark species going through Singapore.

Several high-level publications have resulted from this research, including a 2007 paper in Animal Conservation and several papers in Conservation Genetics. Media coverage has included the Miami Herald, Conservation Magazine, Discovery News, and the Economist.

More Information:   Ellen Pikitch, PhD  |  Demian Chapman, PhD  |  Mahmood Shivji, PhD

Great White Shark. Photo credit: J. Valetta


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