Local sea cucumbers threatened due to over exploitation
By Tharumalee Silva
The decrease in the local sea cucumber population has given birth to much frustration among environmentalists who claim that the need for regulations to avoid over exploitation were voiced years ago.
Speaking to The Sunday Morning Brunch, renowned environmental lawyer Jagath Gunawardana stated that the call for regulations was made years ago when the issue first surfaced.
According to him, desperate fishermen have now started illegal fishing in waters all the way from Diego Garcia. “There is a huge illegal trade market for sea cucumbers as well,” he said.
Even though this particular sea creature is not much of a local delicacy, it is widely known to be favoured by the East and Southeast Asian palates.
National Geographic states: “Feeding on scraps of food, these creatures spend their lives inhaling saltwater and expelling clear liquid and sediment. In many areas, their depletion has led to murkier, more polluted coastal waters. In coral reef habitats, where they buffer the effects of ocean acidification, their loss has made catastrophic bleaching events a graver threat.”
In 2010, Morocco’s Fisheries Ministry banned sea cucumber exports due to their decreasing numbers and to control black market demand for these animals.
“We must regulate and identify breeding seasons and impose laws and regulations to regulate the amount of sea cucumbers that are fished,” Gunawardana said.
He further elaborated that this can be controlled and regulated locally by the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Act No. 2 of 1996 Sections 6, 29, 30, and 66.
“We do not need to wait for international conventions to address this issue when we already have the necessary laws to regulate it within the country,” Gunawardana said.
He further informed that the authorities have submitted a proposal to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to list sea cucumbers in their list of endangered species.
“This is not going to provide any solution for our issue. We have appealed to CITES before on numerous occasions and we were never provided a feasible solution,” he said.
Gunawardana further stated that the industry mostly oriented around export trade. “Rather than controlling trade, which is a miniscule issue, we must concentrate on controlling unregulated overexploitation of fish,” he said.
Speaking to The Sunday Morning Brunch regarding the matter, Department of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Director General Ginige Prasanna Janaka Kumara said a special task force is being directed to address the matter.
“We, with the affiliation of the National Aqua Culture Development Authority (NAQDA) and the National Aquatic Resource Research Agency (NARRA) along with experts, are conducting extensive research into the matter. We are looking into how we can protect these species while meeting the demands of the international community,” said Kumara.
He further stated that breeding of these particular sea creatures carry a lot of export potential. “Our country will be able to earn millions as this is a widely popular delicacy in many parts of the world,” he stated.
According to Business Insider, a kilo of sea cucumbers can cost up to $ 3000; in Sri Lankan rupees, this would roughly amount to 510,000 ($ 1 = Rs. 170).
“From 1996 to 2011, the number of countries exporting sea cucumbers exploded from 35 to 83. But unfortunately, sea cucumbers couldn’t handle the strain. In Yucatan, Mexico, for example, divers saw a 95% drop in their harvest just between 2012 and 2014, and that’s a problem for everyone because, for one, the more sea cucumbers are harvested, the rarer and more expensive they become. Average prices rose almost 17% worldwide between 2011 and 2016. And the rarer these animals get, the deeper the divers swim to find them. That’s when fishing gets dangerous,” states Business Insider.
According to University of Sri Jayewardenepura lecturer and former NARA research officer Chamari Dissanayake, in 2012, there have been 24 sea cucumber species in Sri Lankan waters, out of which 20 were commercially valuable.
However, a report published in May 2019 in the Journal of National Aquatic Resources by Dissanayake notes that said number of sea cucumber species has significantly decreased with only nine sea cucumber species being recorded in local catchment between 2015 and 2017, and the research concludes that these creatures, including the white teat fish listed in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s red list, are overexploited.
The Director General of the Department stated that they have initiated steps to regulate the overexploitation of these creatures; they have issued licenses, which according to environmental lawyer Gunawardana is somewhat questionable due to its lack of criteria when issuing.
Kumara further informed that sea cucumber farming can be considered an economic development project.