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National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science

NOAA Fisheries: Office for Law Enforcement


Forensic Science Bolsters Prosecution of Environmental Crime Cases

The Marine Forensics Program of the National Ocean Service is focused on one goal – supporting enforcement of our nation's laws which protect valuable fisheries resources, marine mammals, and endangered species. It is one of the only laboratories in the country focused on forensic analysis of marine species.

Marine forensic science supports many cases impacting marine life, our environment, and the economy. Here are a few examples:

NOAA icon 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.

NOAA icon Shark fins are valuable for shark fin soup and while shark finning is illegal in the U.S., this practice still continues. Using DNA, scientists can determine what species of shark was finned, helping to enforce laws designed to protect fisheries resources.

NOAA icon False labeling of imported species harms the consumer 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.

Harbor seal pelt

Scientist samples the pelt of a harbor seal at the Marine Forensics Laboratory in South Carolina. These pelts are still used for boots and coats.

In a recent case, National Ocean Service scientists used DNA to identify suspect sea turtle eggs taken from a Florida beach, allegedly in violation of federal law. The positive identification of these eggs will aid in the prosecution of the suspected poacher, and will serve as a deterrent to other potential violators in the area. The eggs were identified as loggerhead sea turtle, a threatened species which scientists believe continues to decline in numbers along the East Coast of the U.S.

In addition, this group of highly trained scientists participates 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.  Training sessions by National Ocean Service experts assist prosecutors in assembling strong cases and preparing for likely defense arguments.

The Marine Forensics Program will continue to provide expert data and analysis to support future environmental investigations.