Illegal Trade of Dried Sea Cucumbers Thriving Despite Crackdown
Sun, April 11, 2021

Illegal Trade of Dried Sea Cucumbers Thriving Despite Crackdown


Sea cucumbers, eaten either dried or fresh, are a weight-loss-friendly food. / Photo by Top Photo Corporation via Shutterstock


Sea cucumbers, eaten either dried or fresh, are a weight-loss-friendly food. They are very low in fat and calories but high in protein and contain powerful substances that are good for health. They are a popular delicacy in many Asian cultures, including Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, and China.


Illegal trade of dried sea cucumbers

The slow-moving marine animals were mostly used as fishing baits in the southern part of Spain as well until 2014 when word spread that their dried body had become a prized delicacy referred to as bêche-de-mer. Some believe that it is also an aphrodisiac, increasing one’s sexual desire or behavior.

Sabrina Weiss shared via culture and news platform Wired UK that the illegal trade of dried sea cucumbers is now thriving in Europe. Weiss cited the story of four men who walked into the open sea at dusk to capture the worm-like species. The three were equipped with diving gear while the fourth was tasked to alert his companion if he saw witnesses or police nearby. The three divers waded through the warm, shallow water in search of sea cucumbers.

An estimated 10,000 tonnes of dried sea cucumber (200 million live marine animals) are traded internationally every year and this does not even include aquafarming yet. In the past, there has been an ample supply of sea cucumbers in the Indo-Pacific, but this started to decline as fishermen in Spain also raced to remove the slug-like marine animals from the seafloor. Behind these fishermen are a group of opportunists, such as the drug-dealers wanting to cash in on the thriving sea cucumber trade.  


The three divers waded through the warm, shallow water in search of sea cucumbers. / Photo by e2dan via Shutterstock


Spain’s police force interventions

There has been a unit of the military police force in Spain tasked to watch divers collecting sea cucumbers from afar. The police force is using thermal imagers and binoculars to catch the divers. Spain law enforcement agency Guardia Civil Nature Protection Service’s head Jose Antonio de la Torre said that the situation is like “a game of cat and mouse.” The moment the divers are out of the water, that is when the police force will intervene.

In the last four years, the Spanish police force has been increasing their surveillance and have also patrolled the coastline from spring to early autumn, when the water is calmer and warmer and most illegal harvesting of sea cucumber happens.


Annual sales value of sea cucumber in Spain 2008-2018

Database company Statista surveyed Spain from 2008 to 2018 and revealed the annual sales value of sea cucumber (million euros) in the country during the said period. The statistics show that the value of sea cucumber in 2008 was 0.27 million euros, 0.25 in 2009, 0.22 in 2010, 0.24 in 2011, 2.55 in 2012, 5.77 in 2013, 5.96 in 2014, 4.85 in 2015, 4.05 in 2016, 2.53 in 2017, and 1.05 in 2018.

In China, people’s appetite for sea cucumbers started centuries ago but the demand for sea cucumbers also declined as commercial fisheries have been limited in the Indo-Pacific Ocean. 



The analysis made by a sea cucumber expert

Sea cucumber expert Steven Purcell form the Southern Cross University in Australia made a global analysis relating to the sea cucumber population. He found that about 70% of the world’s fisheries were already over- or fully exploited since 2011. For instance, the most popular Japanese spiky sea cucumber is now considered an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and has been exploited throughout its natural range. To help increase their numbers, the species are being cultivated and bred on large scale.

Although the seafloor bounty of the Pacific has been largely extracted, Europe is beginning to assess the potentiality of the supply. For instance, Turkey limits the annual catch at 2,500 tonnes and Italy declared a temporary prohibition on all transport and fishing of sea cucumbers in 2018 to assess the country’s available stocks. Sea cucumber fisheries in Spain, though, are not regulated, except in northern Galicia. The sheltered beaches and rocky bays likewise make it easy for the illegal gathering of a few hundred sea cucumbers per hour.



Sea cucumbers as the vacuum cleaners of the ocean

The sea cucumbers may look like inconspicuous and simple creatures but they are dubbed as the vacuum cleaners of the sea, making them invaluable for the marine ecosystems. As more wastewater from aquaculture plants, agriculture, hotels, and cities are discharged into the ocean, the waters in the coasts become overfertilized. Sea cucumbers serve as vacuum cleaners by preventing the accumulation of high levels of organic matter in the ocean. They also brush their tentacles along the seabed and stuff the decaying algae, silt, and other particles into their mouths. Once they decompose the bacteria and matter, they pop it out into the ocean as clean sand.

Illegal exploitation of the marine animals may lead to a collapse in the local population since sea cucumbers depend only on external fertilization for reproduction. For fertilization to happen, male and female sea cucumbers have to be close enough to each other. Males release their sperm and females release their eggs into the water at the same time. If the area is overfished, it will be difficult for the sperm and eggs of sea cucumbers to reach each other and reproduce.

China Dialogue Ocean, a site that reports on the global ocean crisis, estimated that China will account for approximately 38% of all global consumption of fish by 2030 and this reflects the significant increase of sea cucumber trade to China. In 15 years (1996-2011), the sea cucumber sourcing network grew from 35 to 83 countries. More than 90% of the world’s tropical coastline now lies within nations that export sea cucumbers to Hong Kong, where a large portion of the fisheries is traded to mainland China. The Food and Agriculture Organization also published that 66% of the world production of wild-caught sea cucumbers in 2011 originated from Asia, followed by Oceania (16%), North and Central America (12%), Africa (5%), South America (1%), and Europe (0%).

The remaining sea cucumber populations in the world are at risk of being depleted if not managed properly. A sustainable solution to the overexploitation of sea cucumber is therefore needed.