A Breakthrough New DNA Test At Border Checkpoints Will Help Stop Illegal Trafficking of Endangered Sharks & Eels

Researchers have developed a new method to identify illegally trafficked European eels, and it has already led to the arrest and prosecution of smugglers in Hong Kong.

The team’s DNA testing method has already proven to be quick and highly accurate at detecting protected wildlife, easy to administer and costing about $1 per sample. It was originally developed to help customs officials identify protected shark species for fins and other shark meat passing through borders. First deployed in Hong Kong, customs officials advised that they also needed help identifying illegal shipments of the critically endangered European eel. Within weeks, the researchers replicated the test for the eel, according to FIU marine scientist Demian Chapman, one of the developers of the method.

“This test works for anything with DNA,” Chapman said. “The endgame for us is that this technology will be at every border checkpoint in the world.”

The European eel is listed in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Trade of the species requires permits certifying traded specimens that were legally caught and traceable through the supply chain. The traceable part has been one of the biggest challenges for customs officials, because many species look the same at the juvenile stage. This new testing method uses a quick DNA test dependent on primers developed by the research team. It can identify a species from a meat sample, living specimen or even the water they are transported in, and it’s easy for customs officers to administer. If DNA of a European eel is identified from countries where export is illegal, it’s enough evidence for authorities to detain expected smugglers, seize shipments, and pursue a more in-depth investigation.

The test was first deployed in December, when two men arrived at Hong Kong International Airport from Portugal via Moscow with eels found in their four checked bags. There is presently an export ban on this species from the European Union. Customs officials contacted Diego Cardeñosa, a Ph.D. candidate from Stony Brook University and researcher in the FIU Predator Ecology and Conservation Lab, who was living in Hong Kong at the time. Within hours, he was able to confirm the presence of European eels in the suitcases. The men were arrested and are currently facing prosecution for wildlife trafficking. The value of the eels they were carrying is estimated at $300,000.

The researchers are now working with countries in Latin America to test for illegally trafficked sharks and continue to develop new sets of primers in anticipation of more shark species gaining protection when CITES convenes.

The research team also includes Matthew Gollock, aquatic species and policy senior program manager at the Zoological Society of London. The research is supported by the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation and conducted in collaboration with the Agriculture Fisheries and Conservation Department in Hong Kong. The findings were published in Conservation Science and Practice.

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