3D-printed shark fins take aim at illegal trade

'These replica fins are expected to significantly improve the accuracy of active inspection, identification and seizure of illegal shark fins,' said SA-based fisheries trade expert Markus Burgener.

13 May 2021 - 07:00
By shonisani tshikalange AND Shonisani Tshikalange
A Blue Shark fin being 3D laser scanned.
Image: Supplied:TRAFFIC A Blue Shark fin being 3D laser scanned.

The launch of the world’s first 3D-printed replica shark fins will allow frontline law-enforcement officials to harness pioneering technology to combat the trafficking in shark fins — an illegal trade that is accelerating shark population declines globally.

The replica fins created by wildlife NGO Traffic have been developed to be nearly impossible to differentiate from the real thing. The printed fins represent a dozen regularly traded, 11 of them Cites-listed species, including great hammerhead, oceanic whitetip and silky sharks, created from 3D scans of real dried sharks fins.

Traffic fisheries trade expert Markus Burgener, who is based in SA, said law-enforcement officials around the world face the challenge of identifying shark fins in international trade to a species level to effectively enforce Cites laws.

“As if that was not difficult enough, they must correctly identify wildlife such as this alongside all the other contraband they’re looking out for. It’s quite an overwhelming task and due to these identification difficulties, it often results in shark fins from illegal sources not being identified as such,” said Burgener.

According to the organisation, global assessments estimate that between 26 million and 73 million sharks are traded each year — but the actual figure is likely to be far higher.

The organisation said the initiative aims to aid understaffed and under-equipped customs and other law-enforcement agencies by providing an easy to use identification tool that allows for quicker and more confident decision making on shark fin identification.

“These replica fins are expected to significantly improve the accuracy of active inspection, identification and seizure of illegal shark fin consignments,” said Burgener.

Burgener said the fins will help empower officials over the world to effectively disrupt the illegal trade in shark fins, which is causing significant detriment to our oceans.

The organisation said the 3D scan files and associated painting instructions for 22 fins are now available for free on the Traffic website as part of the organisation’s ongoing efforts to combat the illegal trade.

Traffic said that during trials, law-enforcement officials in SA involved in reviewing the replica fins and QR code concept were strongly supportive of their use in building fin identification capacity.

“Working with 3D replica fins has developed my identification skills to the point where I rarely need ID guides any more. This is the level we want all customs officials to be at; to be able to identify at-risk shark species with confidence and ease,” said Simone Louw, project support officer at Traffic.

The replica fins were developed with the support of the South African Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment, and US shark expert Debra Abercrombie and with active input from several committed South African-based service providers.

A selective laser sintering process using nylon as the primary material forms part of the development process, giving the fins a slightly rough, sandpaper-like texture — similar to real dried shark fins found in trade.

Distinctive markings and colouration, which are crucial for accurate identification, are incorporated into the replica fins’ development.