Sea cucumbers are spiny, squishy-bodied creatures that live on the ocean floor. They are mostly sedentary and feed by waving their feathery tentacles through the water and filtering out microorganisms. For a long time, nobody cared much about or bothered these strange animals, but a recent surge in popularity has led to drastic overfishing, driving multiple species of sea cucumber to threatened or endangered levels.
Their Role In The Environment
The impact of sea cucumbers on their local ecosystems is far from trivial. These creatures are filtering machines, removing toxins and microscopic debris from their surroundings and replacing it with clean seawater and sediment. In areas where sea cucumber populations have declined, the amount of particulate matter suspended in the water has increased noticeably, leaving the water murky.
When these crucial animals are removed from their homes in coral reefs, the rate of coral bleaching increases drastically. Sea cucumbers play an essential role in the balancing of ocean pH as rising carbon dioxide levels make oceans more acidic. While these creatures continue to thrive in their deeper habitats, out of the reach of commercial fishers, populations in shallower waters are rapidly depleted.
As A Delicacy
In many Asian countries, especially in China, sea cucumbers are considered a delicacy. Demand for the peculiar-looking food has soared in recent years with the growth of the middle-class population in China. Adding to its allure, the seafood is also reported to have beneficial medicinal qualities.
Some studies have shown that the flesh of sea cucumbers does contain compounds that can help soothe arthritis pains and possibly slow the growth of cancerous cells. As amazing as those claims are, more consumers are drawn to sea cucumbers as they are believed to be an aphrodisiac. Domestic fisheries cannot keep up with the local demand, so the countries have outsourced to international exporters, many of which operate under the nose of the law. The sudden boom in popularity has created a lucrative black market niche that is causing incredible environmental damage.
Black Market Goods
The black market trade of sea cucumbers is a staple in some coastal economies, particularly in Morocco, where the shallow reefs a short distance offshore were home to thousands of these animals. Weak legislation surrounding international exports and local fishing has facilitated the overfishing of marine life. When a town comes to depend on the capture and export of an animal like sea cucumbers, which are being harvested more quickly than they can reproduce, the fisheries tend to become exhausted in a matter of years.
Once a local population has been depleted, the market moves on to the next fishery. This migrating market is not only detrimental to the coastal varieties of sea cucumbers, but it devastates the host towns by disrupting their local economies. Families who had once made their living doing legitimate work end up drawn in with the promise of quick and easy cash. As the resource dries up, money becomes harder to come by, and families find that they have less and less to live on as time goes on. Eventually, the buyers decide that the fishery is no longer lucrative and they move on to the next location.