By Jaison Wilson
New Delhi: Sea cucumbers found on the seafloor play a critical role in marine ecosystems, cycling nutrient material.
But these otherworldly animals have been prized as a delicacy in Asia for centuries, where the wealthiest would eat the creatures as a nutritious high-protein treat. But their demand has increased since the 1980s, especially in China.
And so has their poaching and smuggling. Islands in and around of Lakshadweep have in recent years been witnessing the seizure of the marine animal worth crores of rupees.
Sea cucumbers, one of the ‘four treasures of Chinese Cantonese cuisine,’ is banned in India in 2001, and they are protected under Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972.
“By contrast, in Sri Lanka sea cucumber harvesting is permitted, but licenses are required for fishing, diving, and export. As a result, criminals frequently attempt to smuggle sea cucumbers they illegally catch in India into Sri Lanka to launder and re-export them to South East Asian markets, where they are sold for food and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM),” Dr. Teale Phelps Bondaroff, Director of Research for OceansAsia, a marine conservation organization based out of Hong Kong and dedicated to combating illegal fishing and protecting our oceans, said.
Two years ago, OceansAsia launched a large-scale project on crime in sea cucumber fisheries. As part of this project, we identified instances of sea cucumber smuggling and poaching around the world and noticed a large number in India and Sri Lanka. That was when we launched a detailed study of the subject, Dr Phelps Bondaroff said in an interview.
According to Bondaroff, in combating wildlife crime, it is important that focus should be on charismatic animals. While it is vital that animals like whales, dolphins, and sharks, are protected, other, less well-known or popular species play critical roles in marine ecosystems. For example, without krill, whale conservation would be irrelevant, he said.
The second reason is greed. Much of the illicit trade is driven by greed. High demand for sea cucumbers for luxury food and traditional Chinese medicine has led to increasing prices for sea cucumbers – one kilogram of a white teatfish could sell for as much as USD 400 in Hong Kong.
And the third reason is roving bandits. As populations of sea cucumbers in one area are extirpated as a result of overfishing, fishers may move to other areas, which are in turn overfished. This results in what is called serial exploitation and the individuals involved have been referred to as “roving bandits.”
“My study suggested that this may be the case. By mapping the incidents, the study identified the Gulf of Mannar/Palk Bay region as a global hotspot for sea cucumber crime. However, in the past year, Lakshadweep has been the location of an increased number of smuggling and poaching incidents, showing that sea cucumber crime is expanding into this remote island chain,” he said.
The Importance of Sea Cucumbers:
There are more than 1,700 different species of sea cucumber (Holothuroidea) in the world. Sea cucumbers are echinoderms, marine animals with radial symmetry that include starfish, sea urchins, and sand dollars. Roughly 200 species of sea cucumber live in Indian waters, of which 20 are considered commercially important.
Sea cucumbers play important roles in marine ecosystems: sea cucumbers that burrow into the sea bed help rework the sediment in a process known as bioturbation, which helps other species flourish and is a major driver of biodiversity. As deposit feeders, sea cucumbers play an important role in nutrient cycling.
Their actions reduce organic loads and redistribute surface sediment, and the inorganic nitrogen and phosphorus they excrete enhance the benthic (seafloor) habitat.
As a result, they play an essential role in repairing and revitalizing damaged ecosystems. These same actions can increase seawater alkalinity, which helps create local buffers against ocean acidification and supports the survival of coral reefs.
Unsustainable sea cucumber harvesting has a serious impact on the ecosystems in which they are in. “I’m pleased to see the Indian authorities are taking sea cucumber crime seriously”, he said when asked about the steps that have been taken by the country to tackle the crimes. This is evidenced by the increase in arrests and several cases of sea cucumber poaching and smuggling being referred to the Central Bureau of Investigation. There is still more work to be done, however, he added.
India has formed the Lakshadweep Sea Cucumber Protection Task Force and established several ‘anti-poaching camps’ in Lakshadweep. India also created the world’s first conservation area for sea cucumbers in February 2020 – the Dr K.K. Mohammed Koya Sea Cucumber Conservation Reserve, a 239 km2 area near Cheriyapani, Lakshadweep. These efforts should be lauded and are important measures to protect sea cucumbers and begin to tackle poaching and smuggling.
The formation of the Lakshadweep Task Force and the Conservation Reserve are both promising steps. However, increased monitoring and enforcement are needed. The authorities must ensure that penalties and sanctions serve as an effective deterrent and that they are promptly imposed. Penalties cannot simply become part of the cost of doing business, or criminal operations will continue to flourish.
“Cooperation and coordination between the Indian and Sri Lankan authorities is necessary,” Bondaroff said.