PROGRESO, YUCATAN — Ricardo Domínguez Cano stared at the Yucatán Peninsula’s intense blue sea as he remembered a different time, before a vital sea animal was endangered.
“The sea cucumber was not something special until the prices began to rise a lot,” Cano, 47, told Noticias Telemundo. “Many people then came from other [Mexican] states and settled in Yucatán for the cucumber. And they continued fishing, despite the ban.”
“The sea cucumber could be finished,” the third-generation fisherman said sadly.
Local fishermen, conservationists and scientists, and scholars are sounding the alarm on the dwindling numbers of these marine animals known for “cleaning the bottom of the sea,” according to Cuauhtémoc Ruiz Pineda, a researcher at the National Fisheries Institute (Inapesca), which is in charge of monitoring these animals.
But there’s a demand for them, especially in Asia. Due to intense overfishing, sea cucumber populations declined so much in Yucatán that Mexico banned fishing for them in 2013.
The number of sea cucumbers have not yet recovered enough to allow a resumption of fishing activities, but it’s still being done: According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), almost 1,600 tons of sea cucumber were fished in Mexico in 2020.
According to data from the Mexican Government, 100% of sea cucumbers are exported, mainly to the Asian market — Hong Kong and other Chinese cities — and secondly to the U.S.
The Center for Biological Diversity has denounced that the importation of sea cucumber to the U.S. has increased by 36 times in the last decade, and has requested that it be protected under the Endangered Species Act.
The FAO estimated that more than 215,000 tons of sea cucumbers were caught from 2013 to 2017 globally. Of that figure, around 7,800 tons were caught in Mexico.
As with other endangered species, such as the Totoaba in Mexico, the main reason for the indiscriminate fishing of cucumbers is economic. Larger and better-processed specimens fetch high prices on the Asian market: A kilo can cost $600 to $3,500 or more in Hong Kong and other Chinese cities.
Across the world, an appetite for it
Sea cucumbers are invertebrate animals that live in rocks, seagrasses, or algae in the sea bed. Soft and slimy to the touch, they perform an important environmental role — eating all of the organic detritus that is in the sand and leaving it clean, allowing various species to coexist and recycling, remineralizing, and oxygenating the seabed.
“Without the sea cucumber, the ocean floor is changed,” Ruiz Pineda said.
In the sea cucumber trade, the main product is its dried body wall, which is reconstituted with a slow-cooked boil and consumed in sauces or soups. In traditional Asian medicine, it’s believed that it helps treat the symptoms of diseases such as arthritis and that it has aphrodisiac properties.
In Mexico, “Chinese businessmen came who encouraged local fishermen to extract it when they saw the great value it has,” said Alicia Virginia Poot Salazar, a biologist and representative of Inapesca in Yucatan.
The cartels also fish
In March, an investigation found that from 2011 to 2021, Mexican and U.S. authorities seized more than 100.6 metric tons of sea cucumbers, with an estimated value of $29.5 million.
“Illegal fishing undermines conservation efforts, destroys wildlife populations and ecosystems, harms legal fishermen, steals dollars from governments, undermines good governance and social order, and fuels organized crime,” Teale N. Phelps Bondaroff, lead author of the research, said in a recent interview.
The document details a series of illegal practices that encourage the trafficking of the species, such as false identification, incorrect labeling, forged declarations, manipulation of invoices, and fraud as a means of laundering illegal catches.
Although the Mexican government has implemented various measures such as seasonal restrictions, quotas, closed seasons and monitoring, the investigation found that authorities cannot control the intense trafficking of the species and documents the corruption schemes of local authorities and the use of clandestine facilities to process cucumbers.
Academics like Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institution have investigated how organized crime groups have infiltrated Mexico’s fisheries.
“I would say that one of the most important findings of my investigation is that it’s not only about the presence of narcos from the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel in illegal fishing, but also that they seek to take over the legal business and all the stages of production and marketing to establish a monopoly,” Felbab-Brown said.
In her research entitled “China-linked Wildlife Poaching and Trafficking in Mexico,” she wrote that due to the decline in the species’ populations, poaching only produces a small crop that organized crime groups buy from local fishermen to sell to Chinese middlemen.
Low penalties for smuggling?
U.S. authorities frequently detain people associated with the smuggling of sea cucumbers, as was the case of Claudia Castillo, a Mexican citizen who was sentenced to eight months in prison and ordered to pay $12,000 in restitution to the Mexican government for the smuggling of sea cucumbers from Mexico to San Ysidro, California, in 2018 and 2019.
Source: Noticias Telemundo