Genetic tracking of basking shark products in international trade

Authors


Correspondence
Mahmood S. Shivji, Guy Harvey Research Institute, Oceanographic Center, Nova Southeastern University, 8000 North Ocean Drive, Dania Beach, FL 33004, USA. Tel: +1 954 262 3653; Fax: +1 954 262 4098
Email: mahmood@nova.edu

Abstract

Mounting evidence that sharks are being over-fished to supply shark fin markets is causing widespread concern about the sustainability of these practices. The basking shark Cetorhinus maximus, whose fins command high market prices, has proven especially sensitive to exploitation. To prevent further population declines, this species is now protected in the territorial waters of several countries, and is listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) requiring monitoring of trade in its products by all parties to CITES. Tracking trade in basking shark products, however, is often hampered by difficulties in identifying shark products to species of origin. Here, we present the development and application of a streamlined genetic forensics assay that does not require DNA sequencing to identify basking shark products. The dual-primer, species-specific polymerase chain reaction strategy provides diagnostic redundancy for robustness in legal venues. It is also effective for identifying basking shark products regardless of geographic origin, an important consideration, given the global distribution of the species and international sourcing of fins to the trade. Application of the assay confirmed the presence of basking shark fins in the Hong Kong and Japan markets, and indicated an apparent relationship between the Chinese fin trader category ‘Nuo Wei Tian Jiu’ and fins from basking sharks. The assay was also used in a law enforcement investigation to document illegal trade in basking shark fins in the United States where this species is prohibited from harvest and trade. These trade detections suggest that the high market value of basking shark fins is continuing to drive the exploitation, surreptitious and otherwise, of this highly threatened species, underscoring the need for improved trade monitoring. The streamlined assay developed here can assist in monitoring and conservation on a worldwide scale.

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