By Jaison Wilson
New Delhi, April 8 (UNI) Sea cucumbers in the seabed play a critical role in marine ecosystems that circulate nutrients. But these otherworldly animals have been valued as a delicacy in Asia for centuries, where the richest would eat the creatures as a nutritious protein-rich treat. But their demand has increased since the 1980s, especially in China.
And their poaching and smuggling too. On the islands in and around Lakshadweep, marine animals worth billions of rupees have been confiscated in recent years.
Sea cucumbers, one of the “four treasures of Chinese Cantonese cuisine,” were banned in India in 2001 and protected under Appendix I of the 1972 Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act.
“In contrast, sea cucumber harvesting is permitted in Sri Lanka, but fishing, diving and exporting licenses are required. As a result, criminals frequently attempt to smuggle sea cucumbers that they illegally catch in India into Sri Lanka for washing and re-export them to Southeast Asian markets where they are sold for food and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), “said Dr. Teale Phelps Bondaroff, director of research for OceansAsia, a Hong Kong-based marine conservation organization dedicated to combating illegal fishing and protecting our oceans, said UNI.
Two years ago, OceansAsia started a major project to combat crime in the sea cucumber fishery. As part of this project, we have identified cases of sea cucumber smuggling and poaching around the world and have identified large numbers in India and Sri Lanka. At this point, we started a detailed study on the matter, said Dr. Phelps Bondaroff in an interview.
According to Bondaroff, in fighting wildlife crime, it is important that the focus is on charismatic animals. While it is important that animals such as whales, dolphins, and sharks are protected, other, lesser-known or popular species play a vital role in marine ecosystems. For example, the protection of whales would be irrelevant without krill, he said.
The second reason is greed. Much of the illegal trade is driven by greed. The high demand for sea cucumbers for luxury foods and traditional Chinese medicine has led to soaring prices for sea cucumbers – one kilogram of a white teat fish could sell for up to $ 400 in Hong Kong.
And the third reason is wandering bandits. As sea cucumber populations in one area are wiped out as a result of overfishing, fishermen can move to other areas that are in turn overfished. This leads to what is known as serial exploitation, and the individuals involved have been referred to as “wandering bandits”.
“My study suggested that this might be the case. By mapping the incidents, the study identified the Gulf of Mannar / Palk Bay area as a global hotspot for sea cucumber crime. However, last year Lakshadweep was the site of an increased number of smugglers. and poaching incidents shows sea cucumber crime is spreading to this remote chain of islands, “he said.
The importance of sea cucumbers
There are more than 1,700 different species of sea cucumber (Holothuroidea) worldwide. Sea cucumbers are echinoderms, marine animals with radial symmetry that include starfish, sea urchins, and sand dollars. Around 200 species of sea cucumber live in Indian waters, 20 of which are considered economically important.
Sea cucumbers play an important role in marine ecosystems: sea cucumbers that burrow into the ocean floor help rework sediment in a process known as bioturbation that helps other species thrive and is a major driver of biodiversity. Sea cucumbers play an important role in the nutrient cycle as deposit feeders. Their effects reduce organic pressures and redistribute surface sediments, and the inorganic nitrogen and phosphorus they excrete improve the benthic (seabed) habitat.
As a result, they play an essential role in repairing and revitalizing damaged ecosystems. The same measures can increase the alkalinity of seawater, creating local buffers against ocean acidification and helping coral reefs to survive.
The unsustainable harvest of sea cucumbers has a serious impact on the ecosystems in which they reside. “I am pleased that the Indian authorities are taking the sea cucumber crime seriously,” he said when asked about the steps the country has taken to combat the crimes. This is evidenced by the increase in arrests and several cases of poaching and smuggling of sea cucumbers that are being passed on to the Central Bureau of Investigation. There is still a lot to be done, however, he added.
India has formed the Lakshadweep Sea Cucumber Protection Task Force and has set up several “anti-poaching camps” in Lakshadweep. India also created the world’s first sanctuary for sea cucumbers in February 2020 – the Dr. KK Mohammed Koya Sea Cucumber Sanctuary, an area of 239 km2 near Cheriyapani, Lakshadweep. These efforts should be commended and are important measures to protect sea cucumbers and combat poaching and smuggling.
The formation of the Lakshadweep Task Force and Conservation Reserve are promising moves. However, increased monitoring and enforcement is needed. Authorities need to ensure that penalties and sanctions act as an effective deterrent and are imposed promptly. 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,” said Bondaroff.
UNI JW SRJ1747