The Forensics Unit uses molecular genetic tools to identify biological material taken from species or populations that are endangered or protected, and products subject to criminal mislabeling. We use forensic DNA methods to identify species—salmon, rockfish, abalone, seals, tuna, halibut, crab, and many other marine fish—recovered during criminal investigations. Certain Pacific salmon have been designated as protected populations, and we use highly variable DNA markers to determine if a sample came for an endangered or threatened population.
We also work with NWFSC scientists performing stable isotope analyses to distinguish between two different life history forms of the same species: resident rainbow trout and endangered anadromous populations of steelhead. In conjunction with the University of Washington, the Forensic Unit has developed a voucher collection of fish for molecular species identification. Our voucher collection is listed as a separate project within the Barcode of Life Database as: NWFSC Marine Fish Voucher Collection
The NWFSC has provided forensic genetic services to various law enforcement entities for the past two decades. Established as a formal Forensics program in 2000 with NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement (OLE), today the Center houses a full-time, dedicated forensic geneticist. The NWFSC Forensics Unit adheres to a rigorous quality assurance program modeled after the national standard for human forensic DNA laboratories.
The NWFSC Forensics Unit is embedded within the Genetics and Evolution Program, which has a long history of genetic monitoring of marine species including salmon, rockfish, hake, and, recently, Southern Resident killer whales. Genetic research projects include investigating the genetic effects of artificial propagation, developing genetic markers to help delineate conservation units, measuring relative reproductive success between hatchery and naturally produced salmon, documenting the spread of invasive species, and analyzing the interaction between marine mammals and protected salmon stocks.
Forensic Science at NOAA
The mission of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in part, is to conserve and manage coastal and marine resources. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) Office of Law Enforcement (OLE) and other federal and state agencies utilize NOAA scientists’ expertise to help enforce rules that protect marine species. While NOAA has a large and diverse scientific workforce, only a few scientists specialize in disciplines with direct forensic application. These scientists aid law enforcement investigations on issues that include seafood safety, false labeling and consumer fraud, as well as violations of wildlife protection laws.