Sea cucumbers are in the news – again. The marine creature has been talked about as an adjunct treatment for those undergoing chemotherapy. They have also been tipped as a “wonder ingredient” in cosmetics. Not to forget the sea cucumber capsule industry, Asian cuisines that consider it a delicacy, and its place in the underground market of aphrodisiac market. This time around, the news isn’t good.
Sea cucumbers are animals, not plants, and are distantly related to starfish and sea urchins. They play an important role in the ocean, feeding on algae and microscopic marine plants, and breaking down these foods into essential nutrients that feed other marine life. In addition, sea cucumbers contribute to the cleaning of the seabed. For these reasons, they are known as the “earthworms of the sea.”
In the early 1990s, Galapagos fishermen began to collect sea cucumbers from the waters around the islands to meet growing demand. Hundreds of people from mainland Ecuador, seeing an opportunity to make money, moved to Galapagos to participate in the sea cucumber “boom.”
Ecuadorian government efforts to curtail sea cucumber fishing resulted in angry protests by fishermen in 1993 and 2000.
In 1998, the then Ecuadorian President Jamil Mahuad signed the Special Law for Galapagos, creating the Galapagos Marine Reserve and imposing restrictions on immigration and fishing. According to British writer Henry Nicholls: “In 1999, the first season in which fishing for sea cucumbers was controlled and regulated-about 800 fishermen collected more than 4 million specimens worth more $ 3.4 million in a short season of two months. ”
Studies by conservation biologists at the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz, working in cooperation with the Galápagos National Park, found that the sea cucumber population was severely reduced as a result of overfishing. After the government halted further fishing in January of 2000, fishermen occupied the offices of the Park and the Darwin station, taking some humans and animals hostage. The protests ended peacefully but relations between fishermen and the scientific community remain tense.
Today, the Galapagos sea cucumber, Isostichopus fuscus is listed as “endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (ICUN).The “Red List” of the organization says that the population of sea cucumbers has been dramatically reduced, and states: “The area of highest density known for this species, the Galapagos Islands, has had a reduction of around 80% or more . “
Read more on an agreement signed to catch sea cucumbers, putting the underwater ecology at risk.