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What is marine forensic science?

Marine forensic science supports enforcement of our nation's laws which protect fisheries resources, marine mammals, and endangered species.

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A NOAA scientist uses calipers to measure sea turtle eggs.

The NOAA Marine Forensics Unit is the only laboratory in the country dedicated to the forensic analysis of marine species.

The group's mission began in the 1970s when Congress passed a series of acts that protect fisheries, marine mammals, and endangered species. The problem then arose of how to enforce these new laws. Without the fins, scales, and heads attached, it was impossible for NOAA agents to tell if the samples they came across were from regulated species.

Today, the Forensics Unit is called upon to analyze evidence in 85 percent of NOAA fisheries cases when scientific analysis is needed. Here are some examples:

  • Sea turtles and whales are still slaughtered today for food, cosmetic, medicinal, and decorative use despite many laws that aim to prohibit this activity. The NOS team analyzes DNA samples to identify the species and even trace evidence such as blood stains on a boat deck.
  • Shark fins are valuable for shark fin soup. While shark finning is illegal in the U.S., this practice still continues abroad. Using DNA, scientists can determine what species of shark was finned, helping to enforce laws designed to protect fisheries resources.
  • False labeling of imported species harms consumers and the domestic fishermen who strive to collect high-quality seafood. Marine forensic analysts use DNA analysis to identify fish fillet samples to determine if they are incorrectly labeled or if they are from a protected species.

Most of the lab's work involves using DNA sequencing to identify the exact species of a suspect sample of fish or meat provided by NOAA law enforcement agents. Sample quality can range from freshly frozen fish fillets to pieces of bone. The lab maintains samples from hundreds of marine species, totaling more than 10,000 samples, as "standards" to compare with evidence.

NOAA's marine forensic scientists also participate in many national meetings to share their expertise with other agencies and federal prosecutors. Successful prosecutions of those who violate federal wildlife laws help to prevent further decline of valuable wildlife resources.