MARINE FORENSICS LABORATORY
27, 2003 — Forensic
science is the “application of natural and physical science to the
resolution of matters within a legal context.” Therefore, forensic
science is concerned with the crime, the suspects, followed by investigation
and comparative/analytical analysis of the evidence, culminating in testimony
regarding interpretation of analyses in the context of the crime. Although
forensics is most often associated with legal issues involving human victims,
scientists at the NOAA
Marine Forensics Branch have used similar techniques to assist with
NOAA fisheries and other related
law enforcement issues.
Marine Forensics Branch
only do NOAA Marine Forensics Branch scientists assist the NOAA
Fisheries’ Office of Law Enforcement, but they also assists
other agencies – including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S.
Customs, and various state fish and wildlife law enforcement agencies.
Cases submitted for analyses primarily involve CITES,
Species Act, Magnuson-Stevens
Mammal Protection Act, or Lacey Act violations. Emphasis is on protected and managed species, including
turtles — but all marine species are fair game. Forensic determinations
usually involve species identification and cause of death related to human
and/or fisheries interactions. Other determinations include differentiation
of wild versus cultured game fish, identification of marine oil in consumer
products and morphological identification of whole or partial marine animals.
Examples of previously reported marine forensic cases include:
report of an illegally taken bluefin tuna in the trunk of the car leads
law enforcement officials to only a blood-stained carpet.
shark fins of many shapes and sizes.
of sea turtle eggs in suitcases waiting to be picked up by a passenger
returning to the U.S. from Central America.
de Tortuga”, a Caribbean Turtle Oil Cream said to be “good
for sun tan and dry skin”.
- A dead
sea turtle lying on the beach with no head or flippers.
- Cans of
suspected whale meat brought into the U.S. from Japan.
of shark carcasses with head and fins removed, perhaps to hide their
full of mixed fish fillets from a party fishing boat.
- Farm raised
fish for sale, or is it a wild protected species.
just a few examples of the types of threats managed and protected marine
species may face each day throughout the United States.
scientists at the NOAA Ocean Service’s Forensics
Branch for Coastal Environmental Health and Biomolecular Research
in Charleston, S.C., are continually challenged by a strange and varied
array of evidence seized by law enforcement personnel from around the
country. The goals of the center are to:
the NOAA Office of Enforcement’s Mission: ecosystem enforcement
in the stewardship of sustaining and restoring the nation’s wealth
of living marine resources.
scientific/technical support to law enforcement in cases associated
with marine species.
scientific/technical support to fisheries and protected species managers.
basic research to develop new methodologies to aid in marine forensic
investigative support in anomalous mortality events (i.e., marine mammals,
sea turtles and fish).
biochemical analyses in response to inquiries to species substitution.
Versus Other Types of Forensics
most other forensics laboratories focus on a single species (i.e., typically
humans), the challenge most often presented to the NOAA/CCEHBR Marine
Forensics Branch scientists is that of “species determination.”
Other routine determinations include cause of death related to human and/or
fishery interactions, differentiation of wild versus cultured game fish
and identification of marine oils in consumer products. Routine forensic
examinations include species identifications of whole animals or more
commonly pieces and parts of animals, including trace evidence such as
drops of blood. Most marine forensic cases involve illegal take or trade
of managed or protected species, so a majority of the evidence is in the
form of raw meat (but other samples such as blood, eggs, fins or products
may also be analyzed). Examples of the types of evidence most often analyzed
in different species include the following.
eggs, meats, blood, cosmetics and oils
raw meat, fins, blood stains, eggs and larvae
meats, blood and blood stains, skin, cosmetics and oils
techniques are used to match protein, lipid and DNA patterns of unknown
samples to those of authentic “voucher” standards. MFB scientists
maintain an extensive archive of fully documented forensic comparison
standards totaling more than 10,000 samples from 250 different marine
species, including marine reptiles, mammals and fish. In fact, the Marine
Forensics Branch maintains an entire “library” of authenticated
voucher samples for each of the analytical methods used to resolve legal
issues. Collection of the standards from whole animals by authorized experts
is conducted on a continual basis. The expert also provides signed documentation
verifying the species. This form, along with other legal documents, must
accompany the sample and be delivered with the standard to the Marine
Forensics Archive — ensuring that no tampering has occurred.
Following physical, chemical and/or biological examination of
the evidence, MFB scientists provide critical information to law enforcement
and legal personnel to be used in prosecution of civil and criminal cases
involving marine resources. MFB’s forensic analysts are qualified
to provide expert witness testimony regarding the science behind their
evidence examinations. They also work closely with law enforcement personnel
to anticipate potential issues as laws change.
of the NOAA Marine Forensics Branch
NOAA MFB within CCEHBR is part of the NOAA Ocean Service’s National
Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, a group of research centers that
support NOAA’s coastal management responsibilities. Marine forensic
activities began at the NMFS SEFSC Charleston Laboratory
in the late 1970s, when staff were first asked to provide
scientific assistance to law enforcement. At that time, the forensics
work was carried out by a few ad-hoc scientists whose main duties lay
in other areas, but who had expertise that could be applied to specific
forensic problems. For example, marine lipid chemistry research was adapted
to species identification of sea turtle eggs and detection of marine oils
in cosmetic products. Population genetic studies on sea turtles, sharks
and tunas were also extended to develop DNA based species identification
methods for those species groups.
In the early
1980s, the staff participated in studies to validate isoelectric focusing
of soluble muscle proteins for species identification and further enhanced
the analysis by using specific enzyme staining as a confirmation. IEF
was, however, not amendable to the identification of species of sea turtle
eggs, cosmetics or oils. This led to the development of another method
for species identification using fatty acid profiling. Requests to identify
species not resolved by IEF and for evidence other than fresh meats —
such as blood and cooked meats — have led to directed research into
the development of DNA techniques in the '90s.
the Marine Forensics Program along with the rest of the Charleston Laboratory
was legislatively moved to the NOAA
Ocean Service, becoming the MFB of the CCEHBR. Today, the branch has
grown to eight full-time staff, including protein/DNA analysts, lipid
analysts, technicians and evidence handlers/archivists with occasional
analytical assistance from individuals in other CCEHBR Branches (i.e.,
Marine Biotechnology, Marine Biotoxins, Marine Ecotoxicology, and Marine
Mammals and Protected Species). The MFB scientists conducting forensic
analyses today are very familiar with and practice forensic procedures,
experienced with the methods used for species identification, understanding
issues of cross-contamination and expect to be subpoenaed to testify in
support of the evidence or opinion they produce.
original shared laboratory space has grown into a 3,000 square foot lab
and office complex. The facility includes state-of-the-art security with
computerized card access system, monitored intrusion alarms and video
surveillance required to maintain security in all phases of evidence handling.
Other facility features include:
- A secure
evidence storage area (dry, refrigerated and frozen),
and secure laboratory space for protein (isoelectric focusing, immunoassay)
and DNA analyses (PCR/RFLP, DNA sequencing),
capabilities to investigate unusual mortalities in marine animals, and
LIMS system with bar-coding capabilities to track evidence chain-of-custody,
automate data collection and prepare reports.
of expertise and the new state-of-the-art facilities lends itself well
to an accredited multi-disciplinary approach to forensic analyses and
continuing development of new technologies.
Forensics Branch Research
MFB also develops new methods and multiple types of analyses to differentiate
species based on protein, lipid and DNA differences. The active research
program involving Marine Forensics staff, other CCEHBR researchers and
various academic labs develops new and/or improved methods as new law
enforcement issues arise. For example, CCEHBR’s Environmental Genetics
group is currently focusing on the identification of illegally caught
snapper by adapting genetic techniques already being used to identify
early life history stages of snapper species (i.e., eggs and larvae can
be difficult to identify without using genetic analysis techniques).
is a unique capability within NOAA and serves to protect marine resources
by helping to successfully prosecute those who abuse these resources.
As more and more marine species come under management and protection,
MFB scientists stand ready to help protect them through the use of science
Marine Forensics Branch
Fisheries’ Office of Law Enforcement
Mammal Protection Act
Center for Coastal Environmental Health and Biomolecular Research
National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science
National Ocean Service
Tyson, NOAA's Ocean Service,
(301) 713-3066 ext. 191 or Ben Sherman,
NOAA's Ocean Service, (301) 713-3066