When people are asked to think about wildlife crime, they typically imagine rhinos being poached for their horns, tigers being killed for their skin or bones, and elephants being shot for their tusks. However, the phrase “sea cucumber” is probably the last species that is on someone’s mind if posed with that topic. Sea cucumbers, sometimes described as the earthworms of the sea, are seldom associated with wildlife crime, and yet black markets are fueled by the illegal fishing and smuggling of these species.

Since the mid-14 century, sea cucumbers have been used both as medicine and as luxury goods to consumers, making them desirable to a wide range of customers in East and Southeast Asia. The demand for sea cucumbers is greatly decreasing their populations around the world, and reports of crime incidents and arrests have spiked during the last three years. One of the main hot spots of sea cucumber crime is between the waters of India and Sri Lanka. Although they may seem visually unappealing, sea cucumbers play a crucial role in keeping marine ecosystems healthy and resilient. Without them, the seas would become barren and devoid of life.

What are Sea Cucumbers?

These chubby cucumber-like creatures are part of the taxonomic class Holothuroidea. This class can be found under the phylum Echinodermata, which also includes other marine invertebrates like sea stars, sea urchins, and sand dollars.

A sea cucumber’s diet mainly consists of tiny pieces of algae and marine creatures embedded among the sand. After these are digested and absorbed, the sand passes through the sea cucumber’s system, which plays an important role in bioturbation and nutrient cycling by reducing organic loads and redistributing surface sediments. In addition, the inorganic nitrogen and phosphorus that they excrete are highly beneficial to their surroundings, making them essential for bioremediation. Broadening out to the ocean as a whole, sea cucumbers also reduce ocean acidification, allowing coral reefs to thrive.

Cause and Effects

In traditional Chinese medicine, people believed that the consumption of sea cucumbers has medicinal properties to restore or maintain good health; it has been promoted as a treatment for joint problems like arthritis, as the sea cucumber’s skin has been found to contain the substance fucosylated glycosaminoglycan. Sea cucumbers are eaten in many forms, ranging from dried to raw, spiced and mixed with other seafood, or cooked in stews. A wide range of medical claims has been made about sea cucumbers and sea cucumber extracts, such as how the extracts can be used to treat specific cancers and reduce blood clots. However, empirical research substantiating these claims is pending.

The demand for sea cucumbers has led to the overexploitation of these marine animals. From 1996 to 2011, the number of countries that were exporting sea cucumbers increased from 35 to 83. This increase in fishing has caused a 60 percent decrease of the most expensive species globally. As the sea cucumbers’ numbers drop, they become more valuable, with average prices increasing by almost 17 percent worldwide from 2011 to 2016. The Japanese sea cucumber (Apostichopus japonicus) is currently the most expensive species on the market at a staggering cost of US$3,500 per kilogram.

Global Hot Spots

In recent years, the Gulf of Mannar and Palk Bay (the waters between Sri Lanka and India) has been one of the most popular areas of illegal sea cucumber trade. In 2001, India implemented a ban that prohibited all sea cucumber fishing and exportation. However, in Sri Lanka, it is still legal to export sea cucumber, as long as one has a license for fishing, diving, and transportation. With these two countries just 27 kilometers away, many sea cucumbers that are illegally caught in India are laundered to Sri Lanka. The species are then exported from Sri Lanka to the Southeast Asian markets.

Dr. Teale Phelps Bondaroff, director of research for OceansAsia, and the team built a database and conducted a study documenting illegal incidents of sea cucumber crime between 2015 and 2020 in India and Sri Lanka. By the end, Phelps Bondaroff’s team recorded 120 incidents that resulted in 502 arrests. The total weight of the contraband was 64.7 metric tons, and values were estimated at US$2.8 million. Although the area between India and Sri Lanka contains the main sites for illegal trade, in 2020, a handful of cases were reported in Lakshadweep, a group of islands just 200 kilometers from the southwest coast of India. This new data is an indicator that as monitoring and enforcement increase around the Gulf of Mannar and Palk Bay, roving bandits are shifting their operations to other regions in order to continue the illegal trading of sea cucumbers.

Other popular areas of sea cucumber fishing include Japan and Mexico. On July 8, 2021 in Hokkaido, Japan, the Rumoi Coast Guard stopped a sea cucumber heist of about 2.2 million yen (US$19,895.00) that weighed 688.3 kilograms. The western hemisphere is also experiencing the exploitation of these creatures: in Yucatan, Mexico, the overharvesting of sea cucumbers caused the numbers to drop by 95 percent. Divers are venturing deeper into the oceans to obtain them. Many of these divers are untrained and do not wear the proper gear for diving. At least 40 Yucatan divers have lost their lives as a result of becoming paralyzed through decompression sickness.

Taking Action

One of the main possible solutions to protecting the sea cucumber populations is aquaculture, in which sea cucumbers are farmed and raised instead of overfished in the wild. The process of farming is simple since the creatures can feed off the ocean floor while in basic enclosures. However, one tricky aspect of sea cucumber farming is that many larvae die before they become mature, and the ones that survive take two to six years to reach a size that can be sold on the market.

In the meantime, there have been strides taken to treat the issue of sea cucumber crimes. In India, for example, numerous cases of sea cucumber smuggling and poaching were reported to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the Indian police force that handles interstate crime. The CBI took over the case of sea cucumber crimes from the Forest Department of Lakshadweep in 2020. Moreover, in Sri Lanka, the navy regularly patrols the waters for illegal fishing and has been able to apprehend numerous sea cucumber smugglers in the process.

The actions of specific countries alone are not enough to combat these infractions. Globally, many more countries are depleting the ocean of its earthworm, causing the transgressions to become a form of global organized crime. The same deliberate behavior of individual countries must be replicated on an international scale. Otherwise, the ocean will soon lose a vital part of its ecosystem, and many other marine life forms will collapse along with the sea cucumbers.