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Global-scale genetic identification of hammerhead sharks: application to assessment of the international fin trade and law enforcement

Author(s): Abercrombie DL, Clarke SC, Shivji MS


The future status of sharks is an issue of widespread conservation concern due to declines in many species in the face of high levels of exploitation to satisfy market demands for products, especially fins. Substantial declines in the large-bodied hammerhead sharks, Sphyrna lewini, S. mokarran and S. zygaena, even in regions where some management occurs, indicate that informed conservation measures are warranted for these circumglobally distributed species. Despite the importance of assessing shark catch and trade on a species-specific basis to detect potential overexploitation of individual species, achieving this goal for hammerheads has proven elusive due to difficulties in identification of their products. Here, we present the development and application of a diagnostic, streamlined, five-primer multiplex polymerase chain reaction assay utilizing species-specific primers based on nuclear ribosomal ITS2 for the three hammerhead species throughout their global distribution. Application of this assay to investigations of the fin market confirmed the presence of hammerhead fins in the international trade. A study of the world’s largest fin market in Hong Kong revealed a high concordance between specific Chinese-name trade categories and fins from these three species (“Bai Chun” with S. lewini, “Gui Chun” with S. zygaena and “Gu Pian” with S.␣mokarran), and clear species preferences. This concordance information allows the use of market records for monitoring species-specific trends in trade and exploitation rates. The assay is also proving useful for identification of shark body parts in U.S. fisheries law-enforcement activities. Screening of morphologically identified “ S. lewini” from globally distributed areas using this assay with subsequent whole ITS2 sequencing suggests a cryptic species closely related to S. lewini occurs off the SE USA coast.

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