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 65,000 kilogrammes 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 in mainland China and Hong Kong, it is popular among the Chinese diaspora worldwide, from Singapore to Vietnam to the United States.
In Hong Kong, 600 grammes 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 is valued in traditional Chinese medicine for its 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.
LEGAL TRADE EXPLOITED
Four hours away by boat, in Sri Lanka, fisherman 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 many years,” he said. “This is our only livelihood.”
Today, if they fish day and night, they can catch anything from 10 kg to 300 kg. For 300 kg, he can get 3,000 to 4,000 rupees ($52 to $69 SGD), added the poacher.
“We know we are going against nature. But there are many obstacles for us in every season… We struggle during rainy and stormy weather. No one from the government comes to see how we are suffering.”
The illegal activities do not end with him. A trader buys over the poacher’s catch and sends them to Sri Lanka.
“When we go from here, at a distance of three kilometres, we change boats. Then, after another four kilometres, another boat. Then, after another eight kilometres, another boat. We have to keep changing again and again,” said a trader who was tracked down by the Undercover Asia team.
The trader claims he’s just a middleman in a complex and hierarchical crime chain. His role is to hand his haul of sea cucumbers over to a bigger agent who collects from small-time traders like him.
Overseeing the entire process, are local criminal gangs, he added.
“They have the full support of some policemen. They pay bribes to them to get things done.
They have political support, so you can’t do anything to them,” he said.
These kingpins are often not physically involved in the operations, said Tamil Nadu forest ranger officer Sathish Sundaram.
“So, in many cases we know the kingpin is involved but we couldn’t mention his name in the cases actually,” said Sundaram.
In fact, the operations have become more sophisticated and elusive. According to Bondaroff, there have been cases where getaway drivers are being used to transport the haul. Some also consolidate catches in stockpiles by burying their catch underground until they’ve amassed enough.
When bringing the haul across waters, they’d attach a tracking device and drop the load into the ocean for it to be picked up by another vessel.
The catch often ends up 4,000 miles away in Hong Kong, which has a free trade status. That means duties or tariffs on imports of most products, including foods, are not imposed, allowing illegal trade to thrive unchecked.
63 per cent of sea cucumbers in the world, at least, are traded through Hong Kong, said Bondaroff.
With sea cucumber population dwindling across the coastal Tamil Nadu region, the mafia are coming for the Lakshadweep islands, which for millenia, have seen a thriving population of the marine animal.
“Kingpins from the mainland use our fishermen. They lured them and got them into the job,” said Damodhar, the chief wildlife warden there.
In 2020, he set up a sea cucumber protection task force comprising officials from the local coast guard, police, fisheries department and the forest department. Together with around 200 marine protection watchers, they monitor three anti-poaching areas in the region round the clock.
The results are telling. Since the task force was set up, Damodhar and his team busted an international smuggling racket and seized 800 kg of sea cucumbers worth almost a million US dollars.
It was one of the largest seizures of illegally caught sea cucumbers in the world.
“Helicopters were used to shift the offender. That was the first of its kind… Subsequently, four major cases which we have registered were handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation, New Delhi,” said Damodhar.
“Till now we have seized around 2,500 kg or more than 2.5 tons of sea cucumber in terms of quantity. It’s around 45 to 50 crores (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”, said Damodhar, where sea cucumbers are actively protected. While their numbers have already risen dramatically, he added, it has also lured poachers to the pristine island.
To address peoples’ livelihoods, the Sri Lankan government is trying to introduce aquaculture, or sea cucumber farms, to local fisherman. But the drawback is that it takes eight to ten months for the sea cucumber to grow from a juvenile to an adult of marketable size.
In the meantime, fishermen still rely on illegal fishing, despite its dangers.
Perhaps the best way forward is in reducing the sky-high demand for sea cucumber.
“It involves educating consumers about the products that they consume and the impact that that has on the environment,” said Bondaroff.
“Reframe these so-called luxury seafood items as gutter food, show people that their food that 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.”