Big Ideas



Wildlife trade is one of the biggest drivers of biodiversity loss and leads to the direct death of millions of individual animals across tens of thousands of species worldwide. It undermines both sustainable fisheries management and marine conservation efforts around the world at a massive scale. Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing captures 26 million tons of marine life each year, and the illegal wildlife trade is a $20 billion industry.

    • Between 63 and 270 million sharks and millions of rays are killed annually for their fins, meat, and gill plates. Hong Kong, (with $170 million in imports and $45 million in exports) and Singapore (with $50 million in imports and $45 million in exports) are the global hubs for the shark trade. Some shark conservationists believe that the meat trade is now larger than the fin trade.
    • More than 2,000 whales and 90,000 dolphins are killed annually for meat or for fishing bait, despite the international moratorium on commercial whaling.
    • All 27 species of sturgeon are listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), with 16 categorized as Critically Endangered, due to the trade and consumption of caviar.
    • Approximately 37 million seahorses are used annually in the traditional medicine trade and as curios.
      Each year, 30 million fish and 1.5 million coral colonies are collected for aquariums.

Despite moratoriums and CITES-imposed trade limits, enforcement and monitoring are the greatest challenges for both the legal and illegal trade of all marine species.

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing is a global issue with the highest conservation priority. Target 4 of  Goal 14  of the  Sustainable Development Agenda, adopted in 2015 by the UN General Assembly, specifically urges the international community to “effectively regulate harvesting and end overfishing, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and destructive fishing practices” by 2020. The trafficking of wildlife is increasingly recognized as both a specialized area of organized crime and a significant threat to many plant and animal species. As a result of this multilateral consensus against illegal and unsustainable marine trade, technological developments are being pursued, including the satellite monitoring and tracking of illegal fishing vessels (i.e. Global Fishing Watch and Vulcan’s Skylight).

Genetic tools capable of identifying and tracking illegally traded fish and wildlife products hold potential to transform the interdiction of the trade in illegal species. Currently, genetic tools are relatively underutilized due to the expense and the scientific training required to implement testing protocols. Alternative methods such as visual guides or size measurements are well-used; however, they are labor intensive and rely on the accuracy of port inspectors, can only be applied to certain species and products. For example, shark meat can only be identified using genetic methods. Furthermore, as additional species are added to CITES, molecular tools could provide a critical mechanism for building monitoring capacity in a standardized manner. Recent innovations have developed low-cost (less than a USD $1 per sample), fast (less than 4 hours), and relatively simple molecular protocols that use real-time polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) methods to identify CITES-listed shark and eel species present in a sample.

Field testing and training at strategically selected ports of entry are the first steps in evaluating, scaling-up, and publicizing the use of genetic tools, which will result in increased uptake of genetic tools to regulate and monitor the trade in marine species.



This proposal outlines a pathway to increase the use of field-based genetic testing technologies by port inspection staff to halt illegal and unsustainable fishing and trade in illegal wildlife products. In order to transform port inspections, advanced market commitments (used to guarantee a viable market for the product once it is successfully developed) will be secured for RT-PCR units and reagents for species-specific genetic testing to distribute to strategically selected ports. Concurrently, assays will be developed for species that are to be listed under CITES. 

RT-PCR approaches are currently being applied for some conservation use cases; however, to date, the technology is limited to academic laboratories, producing snapshots of the species composition of trade, or in sporadic government law enforcement operations (i.e. Hong Kong, where field tests were conducted on shark and eels samples collected at airports and ports of entry). In order to successfully transfer and implement these technologies on a much larger scale, including for routine inspections, collaborative testing initiatives must be developed involving the various stakeholders (e.g. governments, non-governmental organizations, industry, academic institutions, funders, etc.) to ensure that the necessary investments are made in capacity, financing, and policy frameworks. There is a widespread perception that genomic techniques are too cost prohibitive for routine screening of products. Accordingly, engagement between nations successfully using these approaches, such as the United States or Hong Kong, and others that need to use them would be a substantial step forward to seeing broader uptake. 

This proposed pilot would deploy Florida International University’s FinDNA multiplex assay, a RT-PCR protocol capable of detecting nine of the 12 CITES-listed shark species in a single test (Cardeñosa et al., 2018b). Because effective shark trade monitoring during the pilot study will depend on the strategic selection of locations and implementation partners, ongoing shark conservation efforts will be engaged to identify five countries and local implementation partners, including both governments and NGOs. Shark conservation is a key focus of many funders, governments, and NGOs, including Pew Charitable Trust, Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, Shark Conservation Fund, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and Paul G. Allen Philanthropies, who funded development of FinDNA. This proposal aligns both with many ongoing conservation efforts focused on the international shark trade that employ an overarching strategy including CITES listing and monitoring and with the policy and legislative frameworks that are required for successful implementation.  

The effectiveness and uptake of the FinDNA assay will rely on regular trainings and evaluation. Florida International University has developed a training plan, which was piloted in Hong Kong. The team is planning additional trainings in Peru (with unit purchase) as well as in Indonesia and Taiwan (without unit purchase). The FinDNA team has also prioritized the top 20 countries for developing capacity to expand the use of genetic tools (see Appendix) and is actively seeking funding to transfer the technology to these countries. This advanced market commitment and training program is designed to uncover the most effective means to advance the lasting adoption of these tools.  

 Concurrently, there is a critical need to develop additional assays for the additional 18 commonly-traded shark and ray species which are being proposed for CITES listing at the upcoming 2019 COP, the meeting of the CITES governing body. Many of the proposed species have fins that are difficult to differentiate from one another using visual methods, further increasing the potential utility of genetic methods. 

Implementing the FinDNA Assay and Developing New Assays 

For implementation, Chai Bio Open qPCR units, reagents, and training will be provided to two locations in each of five selected countries for the pilot stage. The FinDNA assay will be used for species threatened by illegal trade, provided the necessary molecular methods have been developed (i.e. shark fins). Following successful piloting, the model would scale to a larger area (country, region, globe), depending on uptake and the threats to the species of interest.  

The proposed pilot will initially use the existing FinDNA assay for nine of 12 CITES-listed shark species. The remaining three species of shark have large (and therefore easily identifiable) fins, thus species-specific assays are not immediately needed.  

Additional assays for sharks and rays listed under CITES 2019 will be developed for use on the Chai Bio Open qPCR unit, adding additional value to the advanced market commitment laid out in this proposal. Funders, including Vulcan, Pew, and the Shark Conservation Fund have previously invested in similar genetic work across the taxa and continue to invest in the capacity, policy and legislative frameworks governing the shark trade, including CITES listing of additional species, trainings in visual identification for port staff, and increased legal protections in critical countries. The successful uptake and impact for this tool is only possible as one piece of a collaborative effort to protect sharks and rays and regulate their trade.   



Project Management – Florida International University (FIU)

Technology – Chai Bio, Santa Clara, CA

Assay Development – Florida International University (FIU)

Training – FIU and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)

Site Selection – Collaborative selection and design with FIU, Shark Conservation Fund, WCS, Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, and Paul G. Allen Philanthropies

Implementation – Local NGO and government partners to be identified based upon site and country selection
Policy and legislation: Shark Conservation Fund, WCS, and Paul G. Allen Philanthropies



Port Manager$75,000Post Doc or Lab Tech at FIU (18 months). Responsible for workshop coordination and assay development for additional CITES-listed species.
PCR Units$43,00010 ChaiBIo Open qPCR units: $4,300 per unit, 2 units per country, 5 countries total.
Reagents$80,000$0.94 per sample: 16 samples per run; 2 runs per unit per day; 261 work days per year; 10 units.
Workshops$150,0003-day conference at 5 locations, twice per year. $15,000 per conference, including flights, hotels, ground transportation, meals, and per diem for trainers and researchers.
Assay Development $30,000Research and development, including DNA sequencing and reagents for new species.
Indirect Costs$37,800Includes 10 percent overhead, plus taxes, shipping, etc.



  • Technology: To be a valuable tool for port inspections, molecular analysis must be as easy to use as current drug testing kits. While the newly developed methods are relatively simple, providing the machines, reagents, and regular, comprehensive training will help ensure that inspectors actually use them. Turnover in front-line port inspection staff is known to be high, hence training needs to be web-based and readily accessible. Furthermore, socializing the technology as the gold standard at events such as COP 2019 in Sri Lanka will increase uptake.
  • Timing: The base technology and tests have been developed for certain species, including shark fins for CITES-listed species. Species without species-specific primers will not be detected by these tests. Hence, investment in design of species-specific primers for additional species of concern is needed​. This is especially relevant for sharks and rays as an additional 18 species have been proposed for CITES listing at COP 2019. Accordingly, this proposal recommends the concurrent development of additional assays for these (and other taxa), which will require significant research and development, especially for species with limited samples (i.e. guitarfish and wedgefish assay development would take up to a year). This initiative sets the stage for expanded use of RT-PCR technology for additional species.
  • Scale: This proposal chose Chai Bio Open qPCR because it is portable, relatively inexpensive, and can test 16 samples for the presence of multiple species in one run; its nearest competitor Biomeme can only run 12 samples across 3 species per run at a much higher cost. However, even the Chai Bio unit may not be sufficient given the scale of individual fish or wildlife products that transit through a given port. This can be mitigated through training and scaling to increase the volume of testing; adding more units and increasing test efficiency, for example.
  • Enforcement mechanisms: Enforcement actions against illegal trading in shark products are dependent upon the legislative frameworks and enforcement strategies that are in place. This can be mitigated by implementing this pilot as part of a broader strategy to increase legislative protection and penalties using the existing coalitions around shark conservation. For example, in Hong Kong there have been few seizures because the penalties are so low under existing wildlife trade laws. Shark Conservation Fund is funding work in Hong Kong to make wildlife trade violations criminal acts under an organized crime statute. Furthermore, a working genomics-based tool and knowing how to use it will improve the ability of port inspectors to detect protected shark species in shipments which will encourage the enforcement of wildlife trade statutes.



1. Pre-Production (3 Months)

  • Identify species, assays, port locations implementation teams, and develop training plan.
  • Sign MOUs with relevant national and port authorities. Obtain permits and letters of introduction for bringing in tech and reagents.
  • Purchase units and reagents.


a) Identify: 9 species of focus; 1 assay; 5 locations; and 5 implementation teams
b) Develop: 1 training plan
c) Agree on MOUs (5 implementation teams and 5 countries)
d) Sign permits and letters’ of authorization with the 5 selected countries
e) Purchase units and reagents (10 units; reagents sufficient for 10 units for one year.)

2. Training (1 Month)

  • Conduct training workshops with the implementation team (twice per year in country) for the port inspectors and scientific staff from the government agencies. The implementation team will bring the units and reagents to each country for the training and pilot phase.


a) Complete trainings in each of the 5 selected countries: 2 times per year (10 total)
b) Train port inspectors and government staff (10 per country)

3. Pilot (12 Months)

  • Implement pilot study for 12 months in two locations in each of the 5 countries.


a) Number of locations implementing the tests
b) Number of tests run in each location
c) Number of illegal shipments detected in each location
d) Species detected (up to 9)
e) Outcome of illegal shipment detected (i.e. number of arrests or citations)
f) Decision on scaling (Yes/No)

4. Assay Development (12 Months)

  • Collect samples for assay development
  • Research and development of primers and multiplexed PCR assay


a) Sufficient samples in species collected for assay development (up to 18)
b) Primers identified (up to 18)
c) Assay developed and successful detection of species presence (up to 18)
d) Differentiation of species (up to 18)

5. Evaluation (Ongoing)

  • Evaluate the success of the pilots based on the metrics outlined below.
  • Iterate the processes and identify the next set of ports, species, countries, or regions for implementation.


a) Number of locations implementing the tests
b) Number of tests run in each location
c) Number of illegal shipments detected in each location
d) Species detected (up to 9)
e) Outcome of illegal shipment detected (i.e. number of arrests or citations)
f) Decision on scaling (Yes/No)

6. Scaling (After 18 Months)

  • Use the same process across an increased number of ports, countries, or across a region.


a) Number of countries or locations selected
b) Number of units or amount of reagents purchased
c) Number of trainings complete