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‘CSI for sharks’ – DNA research and the shark fin trade

DNA derived from shark fin soup delivers valuable data for shark conservation / © Stonybrook University

In the shark fin trade it is important to know the origin of sharks fins: which species and populations are most affected? This is possible through genetic stock identification of fins collected from major points of sale.

Professor Mahmood Shivji of Nova Southeastern University developed an innovative, one-step DNA test to distinguish shark fins down to the species. The compelling accuracy of these DNA tests have led the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s law enforcement arm to begin using them as confirmation in cases where they suspect prohibited species are being caught. His DNA research also led to the amazing discovery that female sharks can give virgin birth, and finding new species of sharks, billfish and rays.

According to an unprecedented scientific analysis in 2012, by Stony Brook University, the Field Museum in Chicago and with support from the Pew Environment Group, the shark fin soup served in 14 U.S. cities contains at-risk species, including scalloped hammerhead. In addition to the scalloped hammerhead, the team found that the 32 samples identified as sharks included smooth hammerheads, school sharks, and spiny dogfish, which are all listed as Vulnerable to extinction; and other Near Threatened species such as bull and copper sharks.

“The DNA testing again confirms that a wide variety of sharks are being killed for the fin trade, including seriously threatened species,” said Dr. Demian Chapman, who co-led the DNA testing at the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University in New York.
Dr. Chapman’s research combines DNA-analysis with ecological data to better understand the population biology, evolution, and ecology of large marine vertebrates, particularly sharks and their relatives. He worked with the Pritzker Laboratory at the Field Museum in Chicago to modify existing DNA-barcoding techniques to identify shark DNA fragments that had deteriorated in the fin treatment and cooking process.

Examination of shark and ray DNA samples can also deliver data about distinguishing specific species and their population sizes (also see our recent post and even to create a ‘DNA passport’ of individuals. In 2011, Dr. Chapman and his team used DNA to determine that groups of dusky sharks (Carcharhinus obscurus) and copper sharks (Carcharhinus brachyurus) living in different coastal regions across the globe are separate populations of each species. Professor Shivji used DNA analysis to iscover that there are two species of scalloped hammerhead sharks.

Dr. Chapman speaks about his forensic research. He even discovered fins of protected great white sharks:

Dr. Mahmood Shivji of Nova South Eastern University speaks about his DNA research, of which the results are used by catch shark poachers:

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