New app launched to help in fight against illegal trade of shark and ray fins

Fin Finder uses an algorithm to identify the shark or ray species a fin came from when users upload a photo. ST PHOTO: WALLACE WOON

SINGAPORE - A new mobile application launched yesterday (June 7) will leverage artificial intelligence (AI) to help enforcement officers streamline their fight against illegally traded shark and ray fins coming through Singapore.

Fin Finder is able to identify the shark or ray species when users upload a photo of a fin on the app. The app's algorithm does this by analysing the shape and patterns on the fin, similar to AI's capability to process facial recognition.

The National Parks Board (NParks), non-profit group Conservation International and Microsoft Singapore collaborated and worked on the app from September last year.

Dr Adrian Loo, group director of wildlife management at NParks, said fins entering Singapore currently need to undergo visual inspection, with officers comparing the fins against a guide indicating which species have been approved for trade.

To ascertain whether the fins are from species regulated under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) Appendix II, the samples are then sent for DNA testing to determine the species and genus of the shark, a process that can take up to a week.

With the app, that time is shaved to under a minute, giving enforcement officers near-instant feedback on whether a shipment contains fins from regulated species, said Ms Dhanushri Munasinghe, project coordinator at Conservation International Singapore.

She added that the app can identify the species with up to 89 per cent certainty, allowing officers to quickly flag suspicious fin shipments for further DNA testing at NParks' Centre for Wildlife Forensics.

Officers from NParks and Singapore Customs will start using Fin Finder when inspecting shipments of fins coming through Singapore's ports of entry from the third quarter of this year.

Dr Loo said: "Fin Finder enables enforcement officers to make quick preliminary assessments on the ground by enhancing their efficiency in validating shipments.

"The app also functions as reference material for officers by providing information on where these (shark and ray) species are found, and where they are traded."

Utilising a database containing more than 15,000 images of shark and ray fins, a beta version of Fin Finder was able to identify more than 30 species of sharks and rays, of which 14 are Cites II listed.

Species that are Cites II listed have their trade regulated and monitored, and cannot be imported without permits.

Ms Munasinghe added: "Sharks and rays play an important role in maintaining marine ecosystems by keeping other fish populations in check.

"If stripped from our oceans, there would be dire consequences for ocean health, which would affect us, and our food security."

Chief technology officer at Microsoft Singapore Richard Koh said: "AI has the potential to solve critical environmental challenges. By taking AI tools out of the lab and putting them into the hands of experts in the field, we can accelerate new solutions for a better world."

Dr Loo said more than 160,000kg of fins from Cites-listed sharks and rays entered Singapore from 2012 to 2020.

This accounts for 9 per cent of the global trade in sharks and rays.

"Combating the illegal wildlife trade is a transnational fight that requires tight cooperation between the different partners in order to build a robust and effective legal and enforcement framework across the Government," added Dr Loo.

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