AI helps to fight the illegal trade in shark and ray fins

Updated on 11 June 2022

A mobile app that uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) to help customs officers in Asia identify illegally traded species ofFin Finder App sharks and rays has just been released. Fin Finder is a collaboration between Microsoft, Conservation International and the Singapore National Parks Board (NParks) and has included data and advice from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

It can accurately identify 35 species of sharks and rays from the shape of their fins. 14 of these species are on CITES Appendix II – which means that their international trade is strictly regulated and subject to certain conditions.

There are approximately 1,000 species of sharks and rays in the world, of which over 30 species are listed under CITES Appendix II for regulated trade. In Singapore, more than 160,000 kilograms of fins from CITES-listed sharks and rays have entered the borders between 2012 and 2020[1]. The current process requires officers to collect the fins from each shipment for DNA testing to determine its species. This takes up to one week on average.

The new app, Fin Finder, optimizes this process by allowing officers to take photos of fins that will be matched against a database of over 15,000 shark and ray fin images via an AI-driven algorithm in the app. In a matter of seconds, the AI-powered app will quickly and accurately provide a visual identification of shark and ray species onsite and give officers the chance to quickly flag suspicious fin shipments for further DNA testing.

The new app will allow customs officers to quickly identify the species and allow them to know whether a particular specimen needs to have the appropriate CITES permits to allow its international trade. This ability will contribute significantly to the efforts to stop the widespread illegal trade of shark and ray fins. It's expected the app will be made available to customs officers worldwide in the coming months.

Ivonne Higuero, Secretary-General of CITES, said: “The first step in ensuring international trade complies with CITES regulations comes with the, sometimes difficult, process of identifying the species being traded. Fin Finder is a welcome and innovative addition in the identification of fins and will complement other tools such as iSharkFin. It will give customs and enforcement officers an easy-to-use tool that will contribute to ensure that international trade in CITES-listed species remains legal, traceable, and sustainable.”

Beyond identification of illegally traded shark and ray fins, officers from the Singapore NParks will also use Fin Finder as a single-platform directory of relevant shark and ray species. The app also offers onsite access to reference materials that can be used for validation of CITES-approved permits or shipping documents. This feature is expected to reduce the time and effort spent on shipment validation, enabling officers to help put a stop to illegal wildlife trade more quickly.

Dr Adrian Loo, Group Director of Wildlife Management, NParks, said: “When wildlife species are traded illegally, the consequences are far-reaching to ecosystems, economies and communities around the world. By using advanced technology in the creation of Fin Finder, we can strengthen the enforcement against the illegal trade of sharks and ray species following CITES regulation, and boost Singapore’s capabilities in conserving precious biodiversity. The collaboration with Microsoft and Conservation International also reinforces the importance of collective efforts among the public and private sector in combating illegal wildlife trade.”

[1] CITES Trade Database (https://trade.cites.org/)