Meet the Scientists: Busting the Myth that Shark Fins Can't Be Identified

Meet the Scientists: Busting the Myth that Shark Fins Can't Be Identified

Over the past several years, staff for global shark conservation at The Pew Charitable Trusts have come across a common argument against regulating threatened shark species in trade—that enforcement is impossible because agents can't identify whether fins are from endangered or non-endangered species. Pew took on that challenge. Together with Dr. Demian Chapman, assistant professor of marine and atmospheric sciences at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, New York, and Debra Abercrombie, of Abercrombie & Fish, they demonstrated that it is not only possible, but relatively easy to visually identify shark fins of the species proposed for listing by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES. 

Visit to download the guide (English, Español, Français, العربية, 简体字, 繁體字) and learn more about the science behind it.

The five shark species highlighted in the guide are being considered for inclusion in Appendix II of CITES' Conference of the Parties in Bangkok March 3-14. The species include scalloped, great, and smooth hammerheads, oceanic whitetip sharks, and porbeagle sharks.

In addition to the shark fin identification project, Chapman and Abercrombie have ongoing studies that track shark migratory patterns and the use of DNA analysis to answer population biology questions. One of their recently released studies shows oceanic whitetip sharks from The Bahamas spend the majority of their time within the nation's waters, which have been designated a shark sanctuary. But when they migrate out of the safe haven of The Bahamas exclusive economic zone, oceanic whitetips are vulnerable to being caught and may be targeted for their valuable fins. Chapman and Abercrombie's work highlights the importance of regulating trade at sustainable levels through a CITES Appendix II listing for migratory shark species.

Guy Stevens, founder and director of Manta Trust, is working to shed light on the mystery of manta rays. The diversity and abundance of marine life in the Maldives, including manta rays, make it an important destination for divers and marine biologists. These charismatic animals are an asset to the tourism industry in the Maldives and elsewhere. However, manta ray populations are declining globally, in large part due to the demand for their gill rakers, used as an ingredient in a purported Asian health tonic. Stevens has dedicated his life to studying the manta ray and is focused on saving these gentle giants before international trade drives them to extinction.

While this is the first time a manta ray proposal has been submitted at CITES, Stevens learned from the last Conference of the Parties that it is important to show products could be identified in international trade. As a result, he has created an easy visual guide for recognizing manta ray gill rakers. Demonstrations of these identification techniques have been given around the world.

All three scientists are at the CITES meeting in Bangkok, showing the easy steps to identify the sharks and manta rays proposed for listing in Appendix II. They will be available every afternoon at booths six and seven to answer questions.

For more information about CITES, visit