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:
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.