As a molecular ecologist at Florida International University, I am the leader of the Global FinPrint Project, the world’s largest reef shark and ray survey, which has recently drawn attention to the dire state of many sharks that live in tropical coastal areas and highlighted a portfolio of potentially effective conservation measures. Although I study live sharks and rays all over the world, I also track dead sharks and rays through my studies of the dried shark-fin trade in South-East Asia. These surveys have been informative in decision-making about which species to seek international trade regulations for. Most recently I have led a team that develops tools that enable border control personnel to identify products from species that are subject to trade restrictions. Our collaboration with Hong Kong authorities on visual identification guides and in-port DNA testing of shark fins has enabled them to seize more than 40 tonnes of illegal imports and prosecute several successful cases against smugglers.
Hong Kong is one of the world’s busiest shipping ports and a gateway for importing a myriad of goods from all over the world into China. Unfortunately, this also makes Hong Kong one of the world’s epicentres of the illegal wildlife trade, ranging from rhino horns to elephant tusks and pangolin scales. It is also the world’s foremost importer of dried shark fins, used to prepare shark fin soup, a traditional Chinese luxury dish that can fetch more than US$100 per bowl. Many people may be surprised to know that the most expensive fin on the market, called ‘King Shark Fin’, does not come from a shark at all but from rays, specifically the Critically Endangered giant guitarfish and wedgefish, otherwise known as ‘rhino rays’. Fins come through Hong Kong’s ports from more than 50 nations and enter the local dried seafood market or are transported through the territory onto the mainland. Among the vast quantities of fins flowing through these ports are those from species subject to international trade restrictions, like rhino rays. Border control personnel have only a few hours to check and clear consignments coming in by ship, air or land and they sometimes struggle to confidently tell by eye whether or not fins are from legal or illegal species. While many fin importers are law abiding, there are some who, through deceptive practices or ignorance of the law, continue to import protected species illegally.
This project requires large amounts of time spent sitting at a computer and searching through DNA sequences from rhino rays for small differences in the code that will enable us to develop a DNA test that can tell us whether or not a fin belongs to one of these rays. Once potential DNA regions have been found, we design markers called primers and then rigorously test in a laboratory all the primers to make sure that they target the DNA of rhino rays but no other species. We can tell if they target correctly because the primers are used to make millions of copies if rhino ray DNA is present and this process takes up a fluorescent dye that a small portable DNA tester can detect in real time. After months in the lab conducting these tests and making sure they work, the next step will be to fly to Hong Kong and meet up with the local border control officers. These dedicated people work at the front line of shark and ray conservation, hunting down illegally imported fins among vast containers of products coming into the shipping port and airport and across the land border with China. We will then spend a few days with them teaching them how to test for rhino ray fins using the portable DNA tester. Luckily for us, they are already using it for sharks, so after the training they should be able to quickly start looking for rhino ray fins. After that we will provide remote support from the USA via WhatsApp, but it will be the border control personnel who lead the charge and start looking for rhino ray fins and prosecuting smugglers.