Mafia are moving in to poach sea cucumbers. These guardians of the seabed are striking back
That delicacy at wedding banquets may have passed through the hands of criminals — and ocean health is at stake. The programme Undercover Asia finds out what one country is doing to stop the illegal trade.
LAKSHADWEEP, India: There is a treasure in the ocean so valuable that mafias from Mexico to Africa to Japan are turning their attention to poaching rather than drugs.
It is the humble sea cucumber.
This marine animal, with leathery skin and an elongated body, had a global supply worth around US$270 million (S$376 million) in 2020. Mainland China and Hong Kong are its largest buyers.
“(What) really opened my eyes were news stories (about) organised crime syndicates like the Yakuza in Japan making more money (from) sea cucumber smuggling … than they did (from) methamphetamine sales,” conservationist Teale Phelps Bondaroff told the programme Undercover Asia.
India and Sri Lanka are wildlife-crime hot spots, and the sea cucumbers around India’s Lakshadweep islands are now under threat of large-scale poaching, said Bondaroff, the director of research in conservation organisation OceansAsia.
Between 2015 and 2020, Indian and Sri Lankan authorities seized nearly 65,000kg of sea cucumbers.
Over 70 per cent of tropical sea cucumber fisheries had been considered depleted, fully exploited or over-exploited before then, according to a 2013 study published in the journal Fish and Fisheries.
This is a threat to ocean health - and the survival of corals, which are already suffering from rising temperatures and ocean acidification due to human activity.
Sea cucumbers ingest sand and filter ocean debris, then expel clean sand in a process known as nutrient cycling. Their faecal matter lowers seawater acidity and releases calcium carbonate, a key component for coral growth.
Corals, in turn, provide food and habitat for about 25 per cent of the world’s fishes.
A study of just one coral reef in Australia found that its sea cucumbers excreted poo that amounted to five Eiffel Towers in weight each year.
“There’s a saying that every grain of sand in the ocean has passed through a sea cucumber,” said Bondaroff.
“If you remove sea cucumbers … it’s going to have a dramatic effect on (that ecosystem). It’s going to hurt other populations. It’s going to hurt the stability of the ecosystem.”
The effects are unfurling on the 36 islands of Lakshadweep, which are formed out of corals.
“Suppose all the corals die — then nothing will be there to add (to the structure), and slowly these islands will start disintegrating. They might go underwater also,” said Damodhar A T, the islands’ chief wildlife warden.
As with shark’s fin and abalone, sea cucumber is a so-called treasure of Chinese cuisine and is commonly served at banquets.
Besides mainland China and Hong Kong, it is popular among the Chinese diaspora worldwide, from Singapore to Vietnam to the United States.
In Hong Kong, 600g of it can cost HK$1,480 (S$260); the most valuable species can fetch up to HK$27,500 per kg. These usually end up in the top gourmet restaurants.
In China, this ingredient was once exclusive to the very rich but has become popular among its growing middle class.
Their appetite for seafood, which Bondaroff said is close to seven times the consumption in the 1970s, has driven up prices further.
Food writer and restaurateur Lau Chun, who runs Kin’s Kitchen in Hong Kong, noted that the price of sea cucumber has doubled over the past decade.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also driven up demand for sea cucumbers, which are valued in traditional Chinese medicine for their perceived immunity-boosting and infection-prevention benefits.
As practitioner Ng Ching Chuen noted, some studies have found sea cucumbers to have “a great regrowth rate”. They can push their innards out to immobilise a predator and grow new ones within a couple of weeks.
“We make use of these advantages to maintain our health, for example in post-illness care … diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and hepatitis,” said Ng.
Since the 1980s, however, sea cucumber populations across the world have been devastated by overfishing, so much so that 24 countries have since imposed temporary bans on sea cucumber fishing.
In India, the collection of and trade in sea cucumbers have been banned since 2001. Under the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972, the marine animal is listed alongside mammals like rhinoceros and tiger.
But the illegal trade in it has only intensified.
WATCH: Sea cucumber — the Asian delicacy feeding a deep, dark trade (46:47)
LEGAL TRADE EXPLOITED
Four hours away by boat, in Sri Lanka, fishermen can fish for sea cucumbers if they have a licence for fishing, diving and transport.
In 2016, after the country’s sea cucumber population had declined, the government reduced the number of permits issued by 25 per cent, instead of imposing a ban.
But the profits are so good that a local fisherman, who goes by the name of Maduranga, is also fishing at night despite already having a proper licence to fish. Sea cucumber fishing at night is banned in Sri Lanka.
Maduranga said his 20-strong crew each can make up to 2.3 million Sri Lankan rupees (S$9,000) a month if they get a good haul of sandfish, a high-value species of sea cucumber.
It can go for 47,000 Sri Lankan rupees per kg, compared with the disco sea cucumber species at 27,000 Sri Lankan rupees per kg, he said.
When processed into the prized delicacy called beche-de-mer, this dried sea cucumber product can fetch up to US$1,000 per kg.
To cash in on the lucrative business, some fishermen in Sri Lanka have even taken to “fish laundering”: They take advantage of the country’s legal trade to acquire stock from India, where sea cucumber fishing and exports are banned.
“You’ll have a sea cucumber that’s illegally caught in Indian waters smuggled into Sri Lanka to enter markets in Southeast Asia legally,” said Bondaroff.
“It’s now seemingly a legal product because it’s been laundered through the Sri Lankan sea cucumber legal fishery.”
A LIVELIHOOD, AND A CRIME
In the Gulf of Mannar, located between Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu in India, organised crime is taking place “increasingly”, said B Jabez, a forest ranger officer of Ramanathapuram district in the Indian state.
And the district’s fishermen have become poachers because of the ban, said one of them who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We’ve been fishing (for sea cucumbers) for the past 37 years,” he said. “This is our only livelihood.”
Today, if they fish day and night, they can catch anything between 10kg and 300kg. For 300kg, he will get 3,000 to 4,000 Indian rupees (S$52 to S$70), said the poacher.
“We know we’re going against nature … But there are many obstacles for us in every season,” he added. “We struggle during … stormy weather. No one from the government comes to see how we’re suffering.”
Traders buy up the poachers’ catch and send it to Sri Lanka.
“At a distance of three kilometres, we change boats. Then after another four kilometres, we change boats again. Then again after another eight kilometres - we have to keep changing boats,” said one trader whom the Undercover Asia team tracked down.
The trader claimed that he was just a middleman in a complex and hierarchical crime chain, whose role is to hand over his haul to a bigger agent who collects sea cucumbers from small-time traders like him.
Local criminal gangs oversee the entire process, he added. “They have the full support of some policemen. They pay them bribes to get things done. They have political support, so you can’t do anything to them,” he alleged.
The kingpins are hardly physically involved in the operations, said Tamil Nadu forest ranger officer Sathish Sundaram. “They’re using the poor fisherfolk,” he noted. “Even (when) we’re booking a case … we can’t add the kingpin’s name in the case sometimes.”
The operations have become more sophisticated and elusive, according to Bondaroff, who cited cases of getaway drivers being used to transport the hauls. Some smugglers also consolidate the sea cucumber catches by burying them until enough has been amassed.
When taking the haul across international waters, they attach a tracking device and drop the load into the ocean for another vessel to pick it up.
The sea cucumbers often end up close to 4,000 nautical miles away in Hong Kong, where its free trade status means tariffs on imports of most products, including foods, are not imposed, allowing illegal trade to thrive.
At least 63 per cent of the world’s sea cucumbers are traded through Hong Kong, said Bondaroff.
With sea cucumber populations dwindling across the southeastern coast of Tamil Nadu, the mafia are moving in on the Lakshadweep islands on India’s western side.
Like in Ramanathapuram, poaching kingpins are using the fishermen, said warden Damodhar. “They lured (the fishermen) and … got them into the job.”
In 2020, he set up a sea cucumber protection task force comprising officials from the local coastguard, police, fisheries department and forest department. Along with roughly 200 federal marine protection watchers, they monitor three anti-poaching areas round the clock.
Following its set-up, the task force busted an international smuggling racket and seized 800kg of sea cucumbers worth almost US$1 million. It was one of the largest seizures of illegally caught sea cucumbers in the world.
“Helicopters were used to shift the offenders. That was the first of its kind,” said Damodhar. “Four major cases which we had registered were subsequently handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation, New Delhi.
“Till now, we’ve seized around 2,500kg, or more than 2.5 tonnes of sea cucumber … It’s around 45 to 50 crores’ worth (S$784,000 to S$872,000).”
But that is perhaps only 1 or 2 per cent of the actual total offences that occurred on the islands, he added.
The Lakshadweep authorities have also set up a “community-based” conservation reserve - the world’s first sea cucumber conservation area. With active protection of the animal, its numbers have risen, he said. But that is a lure to even more poachers.
Over in Sri Lanka, to address livelihood concerns, its government has introduced aquaculture - sea cucumber farms - to local fishermen. The drawback is that it takes eight to 10 months for juvenile sea cucumbers to grow into adults of marketable size.
Meantime, fishermen will continue their unlicensed or night fishing, despite the illegality and the dangers.
The challenge of tackling demand continues as well for conservationists. “It involves educating consumers about the products they consume and the impact that has on the environment,” said Bondaroff.
“We’ve been trying to … reframe these so-called luxury seafood items as gutter food, showing people that the food they eat at a fancy wedding, at a banquet to show off to their family, at one point in the supply chain is handled by criminals.”
Watch this episode of Undercover Asia here.