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NOS Marine Forensics Program

NCCOS Center for Coastal Environmental Health and Biomolecular Research (CEHBR)

NOAA Fisheries Office of Law Enforcement

NOS Forensic Experts Save Time, Money in Latest Case

Marine forensic experts sample for DNA analysis from a whale vertebra

Kathy Moore and Lara Adams take a sample from a whale vertebra for DNA analysis.

A team of NOS forensic experts recently used DNA analysis to find that four small carvings were made of moose bone.

A NOAA Fisheries agent submitted the carvings to the NOS Marine Forensics laboratory, part of the NOS National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS), because the items were suspected to be whale bone.

The test results indicate that the carvings do not violate U.S. law, avoiding needless prosecution and saving NOAA agents, attorneys, and the defendant time and money.
The NOS Marine Forensics Program is called upon to analyze evidence in 85 percent of NOAA Fisheries cases that require scientific analysis. The program supports U.S. laws that protect fisheries resources, marine mammals, and endangered species.

In this case, the carvings were suspected of violating federal laws created to reduce harvesting of marine mammals such as whales and walruses.

A marine forensic expert samples a suspicious fish filet

Trey Knott samples a fish fillet labeled as "grouper," but suspected of actually being Vietnamese catfish. These farmed catfish, which are a lesser-valued fish and subject to an anti-dumping tariff on import, are often mislabeled and sold as grouper in order to avoid the tariff and get a higher market price.

The Marine Forensics program began in the 1970s after Congress passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Magnuson-Stevens Act to protect endangered or threatened species and to manage the nation’s fisheries resources.

Faced with the challenge of enforcing these laws, the forensics mission grew out of the need for NOAA agents in the field to test samples of suspected turtle meat and fish fillets.

Without the fins, scales, and heads attached, it was impossible to confirm by visual inspection if the samples were from regulated species. The Marine Forensics Program provides the expertise to enforce the law.

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