The Dilemma of Sea Cucumbers

An indefinite ban on the fishing of sea cucumbers is creating quite a ruckus in Mexico.  Although sea cucumbers are barely consumed in Mexico, high demand in China fueled overfishing of the sea cucumbers in Yucatán waters and has greatly depleted the sea cucumber population in the area.  Overfishing in Asian and Pacific waters has already decimated the sea cucumber populations in these regions.

Since 2009, of the 20,000 tons of sea cucumbers available, only an estimated 1,900 tons of these marine animals are left according the secretary of rural development in Quintana Roo State, Felipe Cervera.1  In order to give the sea cucumber populations a chance to recover, an indefinite ban on sea cucumber fishing was issued in Mexico.  The ban was meant to be beneficial and allow the Mexican waters’ ecosystems a chance to recover, but because of the lack of enforcement, the ban is actually having the reverse effect.

Fishing of the sea cucumbers continues to occur in high numbers in Mexico and the sea cucumber black market is thriving.  Many of the fishermen in Mexico have no other means to earn a living, so they continue to fish the depleted sea cucumber populations and sell them to middlemen who transport the sea cucumbers to China.  One pound of sea cucumbers can sell for as much as $300.1

Illegally fishing of the sea cucumbers is also a dangerous business.  Fisherman often admit that some competitors will shoot at others to get their own share of the sea cucumbers though most of these incidents go unreported to the police since the fisherman are breaking the law, and many are also distrustful of the authorities who they believe unfairly target groups when enforcing the ban.1

Fishermen have another risk when fishing for these precious sea animals, the bends.  The fisherman dive 50 feet into the water using only a mask and an old hose for oxygen to harvest these bottom dwellers.1  Nitrogen and other gases from the air dissolve in the water of a diver’s body, and if the diver rises too quickly to the surface, the decrease in pressure causes the dissolved gases to come out of solution as bubbles.2  Decompression sickness, also known as the bends, can be fatal.  In fact, around 30 fishermen have died because of decompression sickness in Celestún since 2009 while trying to collect the sea cucumbers.1

Obviously, the sea cucumber ban had the good intention of restoring sea cucumbers’ numbers and providing a healthier ecosystem for the Yucatán waters.  Because authorities have not properly enforced the ban, fishing of the sea cucumbers continues to occur illegally.  The Mexican authorities must step up enforcement of the ban if they want to save both sea cucumber and human lives.  Sea cucumbers need a chance to restore their population numbers if they are to survive in Yucatán waters and be around in the future as a revenue source for fisherman.  However, this ban took away fisherman’s revenue source without providing them with an alternative to earn a living.  The Mexican government as well
as NGOs should help out these fishermen by providing training in other careers, so that these fishermen can feed their families and not have to revert to the dangerous and illegal sea cucumber fishing.  Doing so, protects both sea cucumbers and humans alike.



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