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The Sea Cucumber: A Holy Grail of the Indian Ocean’s Trading Market

Sea cucumber trading

The Indian Ocean is not only an epitome of breathtaking beauty but is also a treasure trove of marine life. Among the myriad of fascinating creatures that inhabit these waters, the sea cucumber holds a special place. Also known as the “holy grail” of the Indian Ocean’s trading market, sea cucumbers have gained significant commercial importance. In this blog, we will explore the world of sea cucumbers and the thriving trade surrounding these enigmatic creatures.

What are Sea Cucumbers?

Sea cucumbers are echinoderms belonging to the class Holothuroidea. They have an elongated, cylindrical body with a soft and leathery skin. Resembling a cucumber, these creatures can range in size from a few centimeters to several meters in length. With over 1,250 known species worldwide, they are found in various habitats, including coral reefs, seagrass beds, and sandy or muddy bottoms.

Trading of Sea Cucumbers in the Indian Ocean

The trade of sea cucumbers has been prevalent in the Indian Ocean for centuries. The demand for these creatures stems from their culinary and medicinal value, particularly in East and Southeast Asia. Countries such as India, Sri Lanka, Maldives, and Indonesia play a significant role in this trade due to their proximity to sea cucumber habitats.

Sea cucumber fishing or harvesting

The process of obtaining sea cucumbers involves fishing or harvesting them from their natural habitat. Local fishermen, equipped with traditional fishing gear, venture into the ocean to catch these hidden treasures. However, there are growing concerns regarding unsustainable fishing practices that deplete sea cucumber populations, posing a threat to their survival.

Medicinal and Culinary Uses

Sea cucumbers possess unique bioactive compounds and minerals known for their medicinal properties. In traditional Chinese medicine, they have been used for centuries to treat various ailments like arthritis, impotence, and even certain types of cancers. These properties have fueled the demand for sea cucumbers in Asian countries, driving the trade market.

Moreover, sea cucumbers are considered a delicacy in many Asian cuisines. They are often prized for their mild flavor and unique texture, adding an exotic touch to soups, stews, and stir-fries. The increasing popularity of Asian cuisine worldwide has also contributed to the ever-growing demand for sea cucumbers.

The Seafood Mafia

The increasing rarity of sea cucumbers has driven up their value, fueling a rise in illegal fishing activities. Between 2011 and 2016, the average global price of sea cucumbers rose by 17 percent, intensifying the competition for the remaining specimens. This dangerous pursuit has reached new depths, as shallow-water species have been depleted to such an extent that divers are now targeting those in deeper waters. However, without proper equipment and training, this endeavor poses a potentially deadly risk, not only in Indian waters but also in other regions like Yucatán, where at least 40 divers have lost their lives due to decompression sickness.

The situation in the waters off India and Sri Lanka is further complicated by their differing legal approaches to the scarcity of sea cucumbers. In 2001, India imposed a ban on the trade and export of sea cucumbers, granting them the same level of protection as the country’s lions and tigers under the Wildlife Protection Act. Conversely, in Sri Lanka, fishing for sea cucumbers remains legal but is regulated through licensing to prevent overexploitation. This disparity in legal frameworks creates an opportunity for the “seafood mafia” to engage in profitable activities.

The seafood mafia has two lucrative options due to the presence of a legal market for sea cucumbers alongside an illegal one. First, they exploit the dwindling sea cucumber population by harvesting them right under the noses of Sri Lankan divers and fishermen. Second, they smuggle illegally caught sea cucumbers from India into Sri Lanka, where they can be sold as if they were legally obtained—a form of “seafood laundering.”

Both countries have intensified their efforts to combat sea cucumber-related crimes, as depicted on the map. Additionally, in 2020, Lakshadweep established the Dr. K.K. Mohammed Koya Sea Cucumber Conservation Reserve, the first of its kind globally. Encompassing the Cheripanyi Reef, an uninhabited atoll spanning 149 square miles (239 square kilometers), this reserve aims to protect and conserve sea cucumbers and their habitat.

Sustainability Concerns

As sea cucumber populations decline due to overfishing, sustainable practices are becoming increasingly crucial. Many countries are striving to implement regulations and quotas to protect these vulnerable species. Efforts are being made to promote responsible fishing methods, such as banning certain fishing gear and establishing marine protected areas. Conservation organizations and researchers are also collaborating to monitor populations and educate local communities about sustainable practices.

Economic Impact

The trading of sea cucumbers in the Indian Ocean not only provides income to local communities but also contributes to the overall economy. This trade generates employment opportunities, particularly in rural coastal areas, where fishing communities heavily rely on sea cucumber harvesting. Additionally, the use of technology and modern techniques in sea cucumber farming is creating new avenues for economic growth and sustainability.

The sea cucumber trade in the Indian Ocean has a long and rich history. The demand for these enigmatic creatures, driven by their medicinal and culinary value, has made them a sought-after commodity. However, concerns over sustainability and the need for responsible fishing practices are becoming increasingly important to ensure the survival of these fascinating marine creatures. As we navigate the delicate balance between commerce and conservation, sustainable management becomes crucial, allowing future generations to continue to marvel at the wonders of the Indian Ocean.

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