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Shark fins drying on the rooftop of a trader in Peru. (Diego Cardeñosa / Stony Brook University)

Customs agents have been relying on their ability to visually match disembodied and sometimes dried and bleached shark fins with their species of origin as containers packed with seafood pass through their ports. The identification is essential to stopping the illegal trade of sharks that are being over-harvested from the world’s oceans.

A project funded by Paul G. Allen Philanthropies has developed a new tool using DNA analysis to identify nine species of sharks protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Countries are required to check shipments and prosecute importers that are illegally trading in the shark fins, meat and other products.

Allen, the Microsoft co-founder who died in October of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, made marine health one of his philanthropic focuses.

“Paul loved the oceans,” said Rebecca Ng, who leads the philanthropy’s marine wildlife and ocean health portfolio. He was troubled by the global decline of wildlife. “One of the things that he was really interested in was sharks and their role in the oceans.”

The team funded by Allen created an easy-to-use tool that analyzes up to 94 samples in less than four hours. The test uses real time PCR (polymerase chain reaction) to replicate samples of DNA only if it comes from one of nine shark species of concern. As the DNA is replicated, the process incorporates a fluorescent compound, providing a clear indication that the piece of fin or meat is from a target animal.

Lead researcher Diego Cardeñosa showing Peruvian authorities how to use new DNA toolkit. (Alejandra Watanabe / OCEANA Peru)

There are 12 threatened species covered by what’s known as CITES Appendix II: three large hammerhead species, three kinds of thresher sharks, silky, porbeagles and great whites. The tests do not include three of the species; two are easy to recognize visually and one of the sharks has been tricky so far to pinpoint through this DNA process.

The organizations working are the project are Florida International University, Stony Brook University and Bloom Association. Florida International University received $322,000 in grant support from the philanthropy.

The tests are inexpensive to run, costing about $1 per sample. But the portable PCR machine needed to do the work is $35,000 or more for a larger device, or $4,000-5,000 for a small machine that can do 16 samples at a time.

Accurately monitoring the shark trade is important, Ng said. By some estimates, 100 million sharks are killed annually with about 50-70 million killed for their fins, which are often used in Asian fin soups. Customs officials currently rely on visual identification, and can sometimes send samples to a remote lab for testing, but that can take weeks to get results. Using this tool will allow for quick assessments and aid countries in meeting their CITES obligations and avoid trade sanctions.

Bag of small shark fins arriving in Hong Kong. (Diego Cardeñosa / Stony Brook University)

The team tested the PCR protocol in three field tests in Hong Kong, correctly identifying CITES-protected sharks. They published their results earlier this month in Scientific Reports.

“Given the widespread detection of illegal trade of meat and fins from sharks and their relatives it is imperative that we deploy all available tools, including portable (real time) PCR field assays, for better monitoring and enforcement of laws intended to protect them,” wrote the study’s authors, led by Diego Cardeñosa from Stony Brook.

Hong Kong is the primary audience so far for the new technology and the team is working with officials to get the protocol adopted for inspections. Leaders in Peru have also expressed interest.

“This tool is ticking all the boxes they’re trying to tick,” Ng said. “It’s rapid, it’s cost effective and it’s mobile.”

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