Sea cucumbers are under threat but help is on the way

20 November 2019

Sea cucumbers, despite their name, are not vegetables, yet they do share some common veggie traits. They are edible, for one thing. That is hardly to their benefit, however.

Sea cucumbers are marine invertebrates that can be found on the seafloor. These sea animals received their name thanks to their shape that makes them resemble cucumbers.

“At first, I could not believe that these weird objects were alive,” Gerald Durrell, a famed British nationalist, wrote in his journal when he first saw the strange animals. “I thought they must be strange, dead strands of some deep-sea seaweed now washed into the shallows by the tide, to roll and undulate helplessly,” he went on to explain.

Sea cucumbers are beneficial to coral reefs because they feed on algae and other small marine creatures. They excrete waste containing calcium carbonate and ammonia. Calcium is important for coral formation while ammonia is food for corals.

Yet in some areas sea cucumbers are becoming severely endangered because they are believed by practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine to have medicinal benefits. They are used to treat fatigue, impotence and other medical conditions. They are also deemed to be a delicacy in Chinese cuisine.

Owing to high demand for them at seafood markets, marine species like sea cucumbers are globally exploited, which is driving them towards extinction. Vast numbers of sea cucumber products are exported to Asian seafood markets. Sea cucumbers are primarily exported as dried products called beche-de-mer. Most of these dried products are exported primarily to Hong Kong, from where they are distributed to other significant markets in mainland China.

According to Hampus Eriksson, a fisheries scientist working in Malaysia, “Exploitation expands so fast across the world in these modern sourcing networks that overfishing can occur before the resource is even perceived as threatened.”

By the early 2000s, each year thousands of tons of the sea worms from East Africa were shipped to Asia. Madagascar, an island located off the East African coast, has not been exempt in these exploitative fishing activities.

However, the country is trying to turn the critical situation into an opportunity. To prevent overfishing, local coastal communities need to scale back fishing so that they can continue to make a living.

In order for fishing communities to maintain their way of living, sea cucumber aquaculture farms are an answer. Fishermen who participate in local aquaculture farms help reduce pressures on the sea and help conserve the health of marine ecosystems.

Sea cucumbers can easily be farmed since they need no added food: they can feed off the ocean floor if they are kept in basic mesh enclosures. “I know that the resources in the sea are decreasing now and I know that it [farming] is an alternative livelihood for us and I know that it protects our way of living in the sea,” a local sea cucumber farmer observed.

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