Shark Fin CSI
In 2012, Illinois became the first non-coastal state to ban the distribution, sale, and trade of shark fins like this one. At first glance this may seem odd considering there’s no ocean anywhere in sight, but not when you acknowledge that many inland states contribute to the decline of shark populations by importing shark fins for restaurant delicacies. Shark fin soup is not only a traditional cuisine for many Eastern cultures, it’s also an incredibly lucrative menu item, selling for up to $100 per bowl. Every year, some 100 million sharks are caught, their fins cut off, and then they’re dumped back—still alive—into the ocean to drown or bleed to death in order to meet the demands of this industry. The biggest challenge for scientists and crime-stoppers alike was the inability for anyone to be able to determine the species of sharks being caught because the genetic information becomes heavily degraded during the food preparation process. That type of process was used on this fin, which is why it’s white. Most fins are dried and chemically treated before being cooked at high temperatures, ruining the chance to be able to extract viable information from confiscated specimens. Therefore it’s impossible to tell what kind of sharks are being imported, resulting in a complete lack of regulation on protected or endangered species—which is to say, most sharks. So, what are scientists to do? Well, biologists from the Field’s Pritzker Laboratory for Molecular Systematics and Evolution—the DNA lab right behind me— —teamed up with the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University in order to develop a new method for testing samples that had become deteriorated during the cooking process. Field biologists were able to extract identifying DNA markers from soup collected from 14 different cities around the United States and determined that 32 different species of shark were being exploited for the luxury food industry. This including smooth hammerheads, school sharks, and spiny dogfish which are all vulnerable to extinction according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. When Chicago Police made the rounds to offending grocery stores and restaurants, they spotted this massive fin on display in a shop window. Thanks to these innovative methods, our scientists were able to test and compare its DNA markers to those of known species and determine that it’s the fin from a whale shark, a protected, vulnerable species. So, there you have it: museums helping to fight crime with science.