Little Red Podcast

Of Sea Cucumbers and Men6 min read

Not as sexy as the shark – by Louisa Lim


Reviled in the West, the slimy slug-like bottom-feeders of the ocean known as sea-cucumbers have recently won another moniker: “the gold of the sea”. Skyrocketing demand for this prized feature of Chinese wedding banquets has driven up the price of beche-de-mer, causing knock-on impacts ranging from international sea-cucumber smuggling syndicates to a thriving black market to a collapse in sea-cucumber stocks to starvation in some parts of the world.

The fate of the lowly sea cucumber is a cautionary tale into how one country’s growing hunger for a particular food source can reverberate into unforeseen ecological and social crises on the other side of the world. As China has become richer, its appetite for seafood has multiplied seven-fold from 1980 to almost 35kg per capita per year today. Almost 40% of global sea cucumber fisheries are now considered overfished, and at least 24 countries are closing – or attempting to close – their sea cucumber fisheries to allow stocks to recover.

“In the Philippines, you’ve seen a transition from a high-value low-volume fishery – where they’re targeting very high value, excellent species but only relatively low volumes – into a low-value high-volume fishery instead,” says Michael Fabinyi of the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), who studies the international trade in beche-de-mer. He notes this pattern is repeated in many other countries: “You’ve seen them essentially fishing down the food chain, or the sea cucumber chain.”

Michael Fabinyi and Kate Barclay with a display of sea cucumbers (Louisa Lim)

This pattern is emerging in one country after another as sea cucumber traders move in and, working with local fishermen, strip the stock, first from shallow waters and then from deeper waters until all species of beche-de-mer are entirely depleted. Local governments often only close the fishery after it’s been overexploited, according to Hakai magazine, who note this has happened in Papua New Guinea, The Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Samoa and Kiribati. By the time moratoria are imposed, international sourcing networks have moved elsewhere.

Adult sea cucumbers are echinoderms, like starfish and sea urchins, which makes them easy to harvest, according to Kate Barclay, also from UTS. “Some of the highest value varieties are quite easily fished and are very slow-moving. Sandfish, for example, are some of the most favoured tropical sea cucumber varieties, and they tend to live in seagrass beds which are in shallow waters. They’re very easy for anyone to fish. You don’t even need a boat. You don’t need to dive, and so there has just been serial overfishing all round the world, not just in the Pacific.”

In remote coastal communities as far apart as Papua New Guinea and Mexico, the growing Chinese demand for the spiky sea creatures has entirely transformed local economies. The humble sea cucumber has become a cash cow, easily harvested even by children and requiring no high-tech inputs, or even refrigeration after harvest, since they are often dried before trading.

Some communities have become single-crop economies, entirely dependent on sea cucumber harvests for their survival. In parts of Papua New Guinea, villagers stopped growing their own crops, as the “gold of the sea” became ever more lucrative. In China, dried sea cucumbers sell online for up to 1000 dollars per kilogram, while some species sell in markets for as much as 3000 dollars a kilo, despite a recent drop in prices due to a clampdown on corruption which has led to a government campaign against conspicuous consumption of luxury food items.

However, such changes left these communities unprepared for what was to come once Chinese demand had stripped clean the ocean floors. By 2009, Papua New Guinean sea cucumber stocks had collapsed and a moratorium was announced, banning all trade.    Villages that had been entirely dependent on sea cucumber sales suffered immensely since they had let their own crops wither. There were even reports of starvation, and Barclay concludes, “There does seem to have been hunger in those communities.”

The warty sea cucumber (Wikimedia Commons)

The unusual biology of the sea cucumber – whose eggs and sperm are fertilized in the water column – means that the population needs to be quite dense before reproduction can occur.    Barclay explains, “You could overfish to the point that there’s still quite a lot of visible sea cucumbers around but if the concentration isn’t dense enough, they won’t be able to reproduce. Even if you stopped fishing at that point, the population would continue to decline, and will become extinct in that area.”

This means sea cucumber populations recover extremely slowly, with Papua New Guinea taking almost eight years to reopen its fisheries this April, and Tonga taking a decade to rebuild its stocks. When Tonga ended its moratorium in 2009, sea cucumber stocks were depleted once again within just three years.

The decline of the sea cucumber could have a devastating environmental impact, since they are critical to marine ecosystems, cleaning the sea floor of waste materials and clearing algae, turning them into nutrients that other marine life can use. If the sea cucumber population is decimated, then the detritus in the water will not be cleared, allowing algae to flourish and begin to dominate coral reefs. Their alkaline defecations also help protect coral reefs from ocean acidification. Today as many as 16 species of sea cucumber now face extinction.

Yet for vulnerable communities, the lure of the money is too great. In Papua New Guinea, sea cucumber is expected to bring $15 million into national coffers this year alone. Because of the huge profits involved in trade, the moratoria are proving hard to enforce, with trade still continuing in defiance of policy or without proper permits. Other illegal transactions include “grey trade” with traders smuggling sea cucumber into the mainland from Hong Kong, to avoid 30% tariffs on the product. Illegal sea cucumber trade has been reported as far afield as New Zealand, Mexico, Sri Lanka and San Diego, where a father and a son were found guilty of smuggling illegally harvested cucumbers worth $17 million into the US.

But for Chinese newlyweds, the cachet is still a lure, with happy couples continuing to serve up sea cucumber dishes, often blithely unaware of the ecological cost to marine environments. Recent work done by Fabinyi and Barclay shows that most Chinese consumers do not regard environmental sustainability as their responsibility, instead believing it to be the job of national governments in the countries of production.

For environmentalists, one model has been basketball star Yao Ming’s high-profile campaign for Wild Aid to stop Chinese consumers from eating another wedding staple, shark fin. That has led to a 50% drop in shark deaths. But Fabinyi isn’t holding out much hope that beche de mer will get its own superstar saviour, commenting ruefully, “the sea cucumber isn’t quite as sexy, shall we say, as the shark.” ∎

This essay is a companion piece to this week’s episode of the Little Red Podcast, hosted by Graeme Smith and Louisa Lim and distributed by Chinoiresie at Australian National University.
Header image from Flickr by sarahhsia.