In the waters off Mexico, fishing this vital sea creature is banned. It’s still happening.

PROGRESO, Mexico – Ricardo Domínguez Cano gazed out at the intense blue sea of ​​the Yucatan Peninsula as he remembered a different time, before a vital marine animal was in danger.

“Sea cucumber was not something special until prices started to go up a lot,” Cano, 47, told Noticias Telemundo. “Many people then came from other [Mexican] states and settled in Yucatan for cucumber. And they continued fishing despite the ban.”

“The sea cucumber may be finished,” said the third-generation fisherman sadly.

Local fishermen, conservationists, and scientists and scholars are sounding the alarm over the dwindling number of these marine animals known to “clean up the seabed,” according to Cuauhtémoc Ruiz Pineda, a researcher at the Instituto Nacional de Pesca (Inapesca), which is responsible for monitoring these animals.

But there is a demand for them, especially in Asia. Due to intense overfishing, sea cucumber populations have declined so much in Yucatan that Mexico banned fishing for them in 2013.

The number of sea cucumbers has not yet recovered enough to allow the resumption of fishing activities, but it is still being done: according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), almost 1,600 tons of sea cucumbers sea ​​were fished in Mexico in 2020.

According to data from the Mexican government, 100% of sea cucumbers are exported, mainly to the Asian market — Hong Kong and other Chinese cities — and secondly to the US.

The Center for Biological Diversity reported that sea cucumber imports into the US have increased 36-fold in the last decade and requested that it be protected under the Endangered Species Act.

FAO estimated that more than 215,000 tonnes of sea cucumbers were caught from 2013 to 2017 worldwide. Of that number, about 7,800 tons were caught in Mexico.

As with other endangered species such as the totoaba in Mexico, the main reason for indiscriminate cucumber fishing is economic. Larger, better-processed specimens fetch high prices in the Asian market: a kilo can cost anywhere from $600 to $3,500 or more in Hong Kong and other Chinese cities.

Researcher Cuauhtémoc Ruiz Pineda measuring a sea cucumber off the coast of Progreso, Yucatan, on April 28.
Researcher Cuauhtémoc Ruiz Pineda measuring a sea cucumber off the coast of Progreso, Yucatan, on April 28.Telemundo news

All over the world, an appetite for it

Sea cucumbers are invertebrate animals that live on rocks, seagrass or algae on the seafloor. Soft and slimy to the touch, they play an important environmental role – eating all the organic debris that is in the sand and leaving it clean, allowing various species to coexist and recycle, remineralizing and oxygenating the seafloor.

“Without the sea cucumber, the ocean floor is altered,” said Ruiz Pineda.

In the sea cucumber trade, the main product is its dried body wall, which is reconstituted by slow boiling and consumed in sauces or soups. In traditional Asian medicine, it is believed to help treat the symptoms of conditions such as arthritis and to have aphrodisiac properties.

In Mexico, “Chinese businessmen arrived who encouraged local fishermen to extract it when they saw the great value it has”, said Alicia Virginia Poot Salazar, a biologist and Inapesca representative in Yucatán.

Cartels also fish

In March, an investigation found that from 2011 to 2021, Mexican and US authorities seized more than 100.6 tonnes of sea cucumbers, with an estimated value of $29.5 million.

“Illegal fishing harms conservation efforts, destroys wildlife populations and ecosystems, harms legal fishermen, steals dollars from governments, undermines good governance and social order, and fuels organized crime,” said Teale N. Phelps Bondaroff, lead author of the research, in a statement. recent interview.

The document details a series of illegal practices that encourage the trafficking of the species, such as false identification, incorrect labeling, false declarations, manipulation of invoices and fraud as a means of laundering illegal catches.

Although the Mexican government has implemented various measures, such as seasonal restrictions, quotas, closed seasons and monitoring, the investigation found that the authorities are unable to control the intense trafficking of the species and documents the corruption schemes of local authorities and the use of clandestine facilities. to process cucumbers.

Academics like Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institution have investigated how organized crime groups infiltrated Mexico’s fisheries.

“I would say that one of the most important findings of my investigation is that it is not only about the presence of drug traffickers from the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel in illegal fishing, but also that they seek to take over the legal business and all production and marketing steps to establish a monopoly,” said Felbab-Brown.

In her research entitled “Hunting and Trafficking of Wildlife Linked to China in Mexico,” she wrote that due to declining populations of the species, poaching produces only a small crop that organized crime groups buy from local fishermen to sell the Chinese intermediaries.

Low penalties for smuggling?

US authorities frequently detain people associated with the smuggling of sea cucumbers, as was the case with Claudia Castillo, a Mexican citizen sentenced to eight months in prison and ordered to pay US$12,000 in restitution to the Mexican government for the smuggling of sea ​​cucumbers from Mexico to San Ysidro, California in 2018 and 2019.

It also highlights the case of César Daleo, a former Border Patrol agent, who received simultaneous sentences of 30 and 24 months, respectively, for his role in sea cucumber and fentanyl smuggling operations.

Daleo worked as a border agent for 11 years and is believed to have been the leader of a larger network, which was being investigated and monitored by authorities. From 2014 to 2016, and on at least 80 occasions, Daleo paid someone else to smuggle bags of dried sea cucumber from Mexico to the United States. It is estimated that the shipments were valued at $250,000.

On March 8, 2018, David Mayorquin and Ramon Torres Mayorquin, owners of a company called Blessings Inc., pleaded guilty to 26 counts of illegally importing more than 128 tonnes of sea cucumbers from Mexico, with an estimated value of US$ 17.5 million in the markets. of Southeast Asia.

However, the Mayorquins received no jail time and only had to pay $973,490 in fines, $237,879 in confiscated property, and $40,000 in restitution to the Mexican government.

Research by Bondaroff states that a common feature in all these incidents is “the discrepancy between the value of the smuggled goods and the fines and refunds imposed”.

As with many wildlife crimes, the fines and penalties are less than the value of the seized cargo and are low compared to the penalties imposed for smuggling other illicit goods.

Risking lives by fishing

For sea cucumber fishing to be reactivated on the Yucatan coast, there must be at least 70 specimens per hectare – about two and a half hectares. But despite the ban, that number has yet to be reached.

Intense overexploitation has also reduced the species’ ability to reproduce, which has led academic researchers to study how to repopulate them.

“With the fishing boom, the breeding banks where all the spawners used to accumulate were decimated, the reproductive capacity of the species was reduced and it is currently very difficult to find good specimens,” said Miguel Ángel Olvera Novoa, scientific officer at the marine station. of the Center for Research and Advanced Studies in Yucatan.

Olvera Novoa and her team took 14 years to achieve assisted reproduction of this species. However, much remains to be investigated.

“Our main objective is to try to produce juveniles to restore populations and try to recover species that have been subjected to irrational exploitation,” said the scientist.

Another consequence of overfishing is that fishermen must dive to great depths in less-explored areas to find the remaining sea cucumbers.

Many of these fishermen are at risk of decompression sickness because they are not well prepared to go that deep and do not have the necessary equipment to adjust their bodies to the pressure changes experienced when ascending to the surface.

“Cucumbers started to become scarce and people started to get hurt. Some passed out, others came with injuries, their knees were damaged. Some were even disabled. In a season of 15 to 20 days there was a daily death, it was very ugly”, said David Domínguez Cano, diver and brother of Ricardo Domínguez Cano. In recent years, however, these types of deaths have declined.

For families like the Domínguez Cano, the sea is their livelihood and home, as they hope to preserve their marine animals and the environment.

“We live off of it and we’re not going to run out of it,” he said, speaking of the area’s ecology and marine life as he looked out over the water. “But people who come just to make money are not interested in keeping it. We have to take care of everything, that’s our main problem.”

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