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Thousands of shark fins dry out in the sun. (Photo courtesy Shawn Heinrichs)

Scrolling through his Twitter feed, Dr. Diego Cardenosa was shocked by the news he was seeing.

At his fingertips he was reading the real-life impact of his work -- “Hong Kong’s biggest shark fin seizure ever recovers 26 tonnes.”

"No way! I can't believe this just happened," Cardeñosa remembers saying out loud. The timing was incredible, as just 24 hours before the news of the biggest shark fin seizure in history broke in Hong Kong, Cardeñosa successfully defended his Ph.D. over Zoom inside his home in Colombia showing the effectiveness of the DNA Toolkit. After spending a year living in Hong Kong working with authorities to get them ready to use the tool themselves, the seizure was confirmation the technology was paying off.

“DNA doesn’t get fooled,” said Dr. Demian Chapman, an associate professor at Florida International University and Cardenosa’s adviser and co-developer of the DNA Toolkit. “It doesn't matter what kind of species, if it’s meat, or what kind of fin, DNA is DNA. It's a code.”

After investigating two suspicious shipping containers arriving from Ecuador, Hong Kong authorities found 26 tonnes of dried shark fins worth about HK$8.6 million (US$1.1 million) from an estimated 38,500 threatened and protected silky and thresher sharks. Customs officers arrested a 57-year-old male suspect who has been released on bail pending investigation. At the heart of the bust was the DNA Toolkit.

DNA doesn’t get fooled. It doesn't matter what kind of species, if it’s meat, or what kind of fin, DNA is DNA. It's a code.

Dr. Demian Chapman

This DNA-testing system, co-developed by Cardeñosa and Chapman and funded by the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, uses a shark’s DNA to create essentially a barcode for shark species. Since some shark fins are difficult to visually identify, they often pass through ports uninspected. The DNA Toolkit gives inspectors a quick, reliable, and — at 96 cents per sample — a cost-effective way to detect and identify threatened species. Along with Vulcan’s support for outreach and advocacy work on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and the foundation’s support of Global FinPrint, the world’s first global survey that found sharks were functionally extinct on many of the world's reefs, the DNA Toolkit is helping authorities enforce much needed management and protection measures.

“It’s amazing to see that our tool is being used officially as an inspection tool in one of the largest shark fin trading hubs in the world,” said Cardeñosa.

At the same time, Chapman was talking to reporters after his published research showed, for the first time, that sharks have DNA “zip codes.” Using the DNA Toolkit and shark fins found in the Hong Kong market to help his detective work, Chapman revealed sharks have distinct signatures allowing them to be traced back to the regions where they were caught. 

These were a couple big days for Cardeñosa and Chapman. The technology they had developed was helping law enforcement crack down on the illegal shark fin trade and — at the same time — their research was exposing key fishing hot spots.

“It was reassuring on two levels,” said Chapman. “One is that the tools we're helping put in place for the Hong Kong authorities are helping them. And the research we’re doing is confirming what we’re seeing in the market.”
One of the shipping containers seized by Hong Kong authorities. (Photo courtesy HK Customs)
Dr. Diego Cardeñosa prepares a DNA sample for the DNA Toolkit. (Photo courtesy Dr. Cardeñosa)

While the technology behind the DNA Toolkit may be a potential game changer for shark conservation, it’s a cultural shift that Chapman is most after. 

“We’re trying to change the idea that DNA is done only in a lab by scientists like us,” said Chapman. “We can make custom officers DNA technicians so they can do this work on the counter of a shipping port or in an airport.” 

Initially developed to identify protected shark species, the two scientists have expanded the DNA Toolkit capabilities to include illegal and critically endangered European eels. They’re also working on using the tool to help combat the exotic pet trade. The technology is being evolved to discover where animals, such as confiscated freshwater turtles are coming from. 

“Shark fins have opened the door,” said Cardeñosa. “The tool is showing that, if it has DNA, we can use it for a number of wildlife trade issues.”

The ripple effect from the Hong Kong seizure is already being felt. Since May, Ecuador has hired 75 new inspection officers, banned the trade of the oceanic whitetip and four hammerhead species, bringing the total number of protected shark species to nine, and also announced several new shark conservation projects to ensure the safety and future of their shark populations.