Demand for sea cucumbers turns India-Sri Lanka waters into trafficking hotspot

    EnvironmentAnimals and wildlifeDemand for sea cucumbers turns India-Sri Lanka waters into...
    - Advertisment -

    Demand for sea cucumbers turns India-Sri Lanka waters into trafficking hotspot

    Sea cucumber fishery is banned in India and restricted under a licensing system in Sri Lanka, but growing demand for the animals in East Asia has turned the waters between these South Asian countries into a hotspot for the illegal trade.

    By Malaka Rodrigo, Pragati Prava

    It was a calm October night over Sri Lanka’s northern seas, the silence broken only by the sound of a rapidly approaching motorboat from India. In Kalpitiya, a town further down the island’s western coast, it rendezvoused with a truck waiting on the beach.

    Also waiting there was a Navy patrol team, which seized the illegal consignment of 1,196 kilograms (2,637 pounds) of dried sea cucumbers; authorities also arrested two trafficking suspects.

    - Advertisement -

    The previous month, on September 19, the Indian Coast Guard made a similar arrest in the waters off Mandapam in Tamil Nadu state. The individuals arrested in that incident were carrying 2 metric tons of sea cucumbers meant to be smuggled by sea into Sri Lanka.

    Seizures of illegally harvested sea cucumbers have become increasingly common in the waters between India and Sri Lanka. Between 2015 and 2020, the Sri Lankan Navy and the Indian Coast Guard made 502 arrests and seized nearly 65 metric tons of sea cucumbers worth a combined $2.84 million.

    Increase in smuggling

    According to data analysis of sea cucumber-related seizures and arrests reported in the media, 2019 and 2020 saw a sharp increase in cases, making the Gulf of Mannar/Palk Bay region between the two countries a global hotspot for sea cucumber smuggling.

    Despite their name, sea cucumbers aren’t vegetables; they’re echinoderms, from the same phylum of marine animals that includes starfish and sea urchins, and live on the sandy bottoms of oceans, where they perform the important ecological function of nutrient cycling.

    Sea cucumbers aren’t typically eaten in South Asia. Instead, their harvest here is for demand from East Asia, where they go by many names, most often bêche-de-mer, and are considered a delicacy, eaten both fresh or dried, and used in traditional Chinese medicine.

    Exports of bêche-de-mer from this region have historically been low, but the trade has grown significantly in recent years as the demand for sea cucumbers has increased.

    For the harvesters, the slow-moving sea cucumbers are easy pickings. But this has led to sea cucumber populations becoming overexploited across much of their historical ranges.

    In light of this, India banned the sea cucumber fishery in 2001, while Sri Lanka tried to restrict the trade through a system of permits issued for collection, processing, transporting and exporting.

    Risking legal loopholes 

    Given the current market trends, this disparity has allowed Indian fishers to exploit Sri Lanka’s legalized sea cucumber trade. They do this by smuggling their harvest to Sri Lanka to “launder” the Indian sea cucumbers with the legally permitted supplies for export. Sri Lankan fishers also often violate permit conditions by gathering more sea cucumbers than allowed, as a bigger catch means more profit.

    There’s also the problem of bottom trawling, which is banned in bothcountries. While 20% of the sea cucumber catch in India is deliberately targeted by fishers, the rest is incidental catch, mainly from bottom trawling. Even then, the incidental catch is hardly ever released back into the sea, said Deepak Bilgi, conservator of forests in Madurai, India.

    Indian link

    Satish Sundaram, a forest range officer from India’s Mandapam and Ramnathapuram wildlife ranges in the Gulf of Mannar Marine National Park, said that during his five-year tenure until November 2020, he had arrested more than 100 persons in connection with 70 cases of sea cucumber trafficking.

    In Sri Lanka, records show that the Navy seized 16,576 kilos of dried sea cucumbers and 11,840 kilos of wet sea cucumbers from 2015 to 2021.

    The biodiversity-rich Gulf of Mannar and Palk Bay areas, the main stretches of water between India and Sri Lanka, are the current hotspot for sea cucumber poaching. But over on the southwestern side of the Indian subcontinent, the Lakshadweep archipelago saw a significant spike in the number of reported smuggling and poaching incidents last year, showing that sea cucumber-related offenses are expanding and spreading to this remote island chain, said Teale Phelps Bondaroff, director of research at OceansAsia, an organization that investigates and marine environmental crimes.

    Bondaroff, who analysed data compiled by the authorities and the media, said there was a sharp increase in cases in 2019 and 2020. “The increase could mean two things: an increase of illegal activity and also the increase of patrolling,” he told Mongabay.

    In Sri Lanka, the Navy continues its regular sea patrols and has also strengthened its surveillance along coastal areas where seizures generally occur, according to a Navy spokesman.

    Most fishers and the fishing community along the northwestern coastal belt live below the poverty line, and the COVID-19 pandemic only worsened the problem, driving people to look for alternative sources of income.

    Fisher woes

    S. Chinnathambi, coordinator of Sri Lanka’s National Traditional Fishermen Federation, said fishers are constantly being exploited by unscrupulous traders into harvesting high-value threatened species.

    “Because sea cucumbers can be sold at a good price, fisherfolk try to harvest more. They will exploit any opportunity,” said Anthony Rajah, a diver from Mannar in the island’s north.

    Rajah, who has been harvesting sea cucumbers for decades, told Mongabay that fishers used to be able to collect the animals closer to shore, but now they have to dive deeper and wade into unexplored areas to find them.

    “It is not that easy, and we need to put more effort now to collect them compared to then, but still this gives us a better income and I continue to engage in sea cucumber fishery,” Rajah said.

    The license system in Sri Lanka has failed to effectively control the ongoing overexploitation of the country’s sea cucumber stocks, with reduced catch sizes reflecting the levels of depletion.

    A 2008 study listed 21 commercially viable species for fishing, but by 2015, this had dwindled to just nine. The latter survey also warned of the possible loss of more species, potentially leaving just five as feasible for fishing.

    A scientific base for issuing licenses should be adopted based on species and available stocks, said Chamari Dissanayake, also from the University of Sri Jayewardenepura. During her tenure at the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA), Dissanayake conducted a sea cucumber stock assessment in 2008. That didn’t include the northern seas, given that this part of the country was under rebel control during Sri Lanka’s civil war, which only ended only in 2009.

    “So, it is time to have a countrywide stock assessment, before it becomes too late for the species,” Dissanayake told Mongabay.

    Promoting sea cucumber farming

    The government is now promoting sea cucumber farming, which is expected to ease the pressure on wild stocks. While experts have welcomed the move, they caution it must be accompanied by measures to prevent it from becoming yet another way to conceal the illegal trade and export of wild-caught sea cucumbers.

    While regulations pertaining to sea cucumber fishery should be reinforced, addressing the smuggling of stocks should be addressed as a bilateral issue with serious repercussions on the conservation of the species in both India and Sri Lanka, Bondaroff said.

    This is a high-value trade, so penalties should not be normalized, and immediate action should be taken to protect the region’s sea cucumber populations from over-exploitation, he added.


    This article was first published on Mongabay-India

    Image: Mongabay

    - Advertisement -


    Please enter your comment!
    Please enter your name here

    Latest news

    NDDB to Execute Upgradation of Biocontainment Facility

    NDDB has executed projects of several bio-containment labs and associated infrastructure in livestock health sector across the country in...

    UN’s Development Goals: Rich Nations Lead While World’s Poor Lag Far Behind

    According to the ninth edition of the Sustainable Development Report released by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, none...

    UNICEF-Backed Report Says Pollution Killed 1.69 Lakh Children in India in 2021

    The State of Global Air report published in partnership with the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) warns on Wednesday that...

    A New Way to Spot Life-threatening Infections in Cancer Patients

    Leuko, founded by a research team at MIT, is giving doctors a noninvasive way to monitor cancer patients’ health...
    - Advertisement -

    Water Shortages Feared as Hindu Kush Himalaya Sees Second-Lowest Snow Persistence on Record

    In the Ganges River Basin, there has been significant fluctuations in the past twenty-two years. Prior to 2024, the...

    PM Releases Seventeenth PM-KISAN Instalment of Rs. 20,000 Crores

    The prime minister lauded the use of technology in taking the benefits to the deserved beneficiaries and also credited...

    Must read

    NDDB to Execute Upgradation of Biocontainment Facility

    NDDB has executed projects of several bio-containment labs and...

    UN’s Development Goals: Rich Nations Lead While World’s Poor Lag Far Behind

    According to the ninth edition of the Sustainable Development...
    - Advertisement -

    More from the sectionRELATED
    Recommended to you