Belonging to the phylum Echinodermata and the class Holothuroidea, the sea cucumber is a sea creature. There are about 1100 species of sea cucumber. Physically they do not possess arms or legs and have a mouth with a circle of tentacles around it on one end and an anus at the other. Its elongated body allows it to lie on its side. They are black, brown or green in color and exist in various sizes varying from 3cm in length to 1m in length. They burrow in the sand on the floor of the ocean or simply lie at the bottom of the ocean. Found mainly in shallow water, they are popularly found in the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific Ocean. They live anywhere between five to ten years.
A delicacy in demand
The sea cucumbers are a very popular culinary item in Asia, forming a major ingredient in soups. They have been a part of the diet as well as medicines in china and other Southeast Asian countries for centuries. They are boiled, dried or smoked and this dish is called ‘beche de mer’, an exotic delicacy. It is one of the most expensive sea foods internationally with the sandfish variety going for as much as 110 dollars a kilo, and the golden sandfish costing between 130 to 150 dollars per kg. There are some species which sell at 3000 dollars per kilo.
The demand for luxury seafood including sea cucumbers has increased in recent times, increasing sea cucumber fishing and encouraging illegal fishing. The fishing has today extended in up to 70 countries. About 16 species of sea cucumbers have been placed in the endangered list after recent evaluations.
Who is to blame?
The Stichopus fuscus has been put on the endangered list after a drastic loss in numbers caused due to illegal fishing by Ecuadorian fishermen. Hence, this species found on the Galapagos Islands is now facing extinction and putting the ecological balance at risk.
The unregulated trade of sea cucumbers is a multimillion industry, specifically in the Phillipines. It is the fourth priority fishery commodity and among its top fishery exports, it occupies the eighth position. Hong Kong is the largest importer, with Singapore following behind closely. The main market though, is China. There are about 100 species of the available 1200 in Phillipines. Of these, 25-30 species are exploited for commercial trading. Apart from Phillipines the countries which have no laws with regards to regulating sea cucumber fishing and trading are Malaysia and Micronesia.
In all other countries, size limit, quotas, limited licensing, bans, gear restriction are some of the methods by which the species are being protected through sustainable fisheries. Other factors promoting the extinction of the sea cucumber are the poor economic conditions of the fishers, who exist in high population and live closer to these species. This causes overfishing and leads to a conflict of interest between conservation and the people’s lives.
The ecological ramifications
Local extinctions are not just going to affect he fishermen and the consumers, but will have an effect on the ecology of the oceanic system. These slug like creatures ingest dead organic matter which is mixed with sand and mud. Their excretion is taken up by corals as well as algae providing a cycle of nutrient passing. Another purpose that they are believed to serve is to buffer reefs from the acidification in the ocean. They help to increase the alkalinity of the water by ingesting sand. Thus the extinction of the sea cucumbers could spell a doom for other oceanic species such as coral reefs, which are endangered as well.