Sea cucumbers in Galapagos only enrich Chinese middlemen

Franklin Vega
14 June 2021

Beginning July 12, 2021, the capture of sea cucumbers will begin; this relative of the starfish, like shark fins, is considered a luxury dish in China. On June 8, based upon a questioned study, a quota of 600,000 holothurians was authorized for capture over 60 days with a minimum catch size of 20 centimeters long. This study has not been presented to the public. On the islands, each kilo of cucumber costs USD 80 on average, but in the Asian market it costs between 1,000 and 1,200 dollars. The fishermen ask that they be paid more than USD 5 for each sea cucumber and that the holothurian trade be opened to all traders so that the price can be improved.

Sea cucumber on the seabed. Photo: Alex Hearn private archive

During World Oceans Day on June 8, while Panama announced the creation of a new marine reserve and the United States Senate approved a ban on the commercialization of shark fins, in the Galapagos it was agreed to open the fishery for sea cucumbers (Isotichupus fuscus), a species of echinoderms related to starfish and which are considered a gastronomic delight in Asia.

The Galapagos National Park (PNG) agreed with the artisanal fishing sector of the islands, allowing the capture of 600,000 cucumbers over the course of 60 days, or whichever occurs first, beginning July 12. The conditions for fishing for cucumbers are that they have a minimum size of 20 cm long for fresh cucumbers; the Park will only monitor fresh and brined cucumber. At the same time, it stressed that the trade in dried cucumbers will not be allowed, such as those seized by the Police on March 30, 2021 in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island.

Danny Rueda, director of the PNG, pointed out that this season is what was established in the five-year fishing calendar (2016-2021), which authorized the collection of sea cucumbers if there is evidence of a recovery, as demonstrated by a population density greater than 11 cucumbers per 100 square meters.

Through social media networks, Rueda disseminated the 2008 study “Target reference points for the sea cucumber (Isostichopus fuscus) fishery in the Galapagos Marine Reserve,” which was used as the main input to define the minimum density of sea cucumbers; the population density has decreased since the beginning of the regulation of its capture by the Galapagos National Park.

Alex Hearn, one of the authors of the document, questions its validity. “It is true that I am part of the study, but I do not agree with the density indicated because there is no biological justification for that number. Despite this, the Participatory Management Board (JMP) adopted this guideline.” For the researcher, political criteria have prevailed to authorize sea cucumber fishing on the islands. This is not the first time that fishing for cucumbers with smaller sizes has been opened, as recognized by Grace Unda, the Galapagos fisheries leader.

Bitácora Ambiental also asked Rueda for details of the monitoring which established that the density of cucumbers is greater than 11 animals per 100 square meters; he offered that it would be on the PNG website in two days, but so far it is not known and has not been found to be published.

By contrast, in 2020, the study “Overexploitation and More Than a Decade of Failed Management Leads to No Recovery of the Galapagos Sea Cucumber Fishery” was published. Overfishing and more than a decade of management failed to lead to a recovery Galapagos sea cucumber fishery.

The authors Ramírez-González Jorge, Moity Nicolas, Andrade-Vera Solange, Reyes Harry conclude that: “the management measures have not prevented the overexploitation of sea cucumbers for more than a decade. In a scenario with no fishing, the recovery of the fishery will not be achieved by 2030.”

To achieve the recovery of the cucumber populations they propose “the extension of the total closure of the fishery and a change to the current management indicators. The study shows that management measures taken with little scientific basis can have a generalized effect on natural resources.”

Gustavo Manrique, Minister of the Environment, said that the sea cucumber season was authorized based on social and environmental criteria. “It is easy to criticize from the city, when you can have alternative income, but the reality in the islands is harsh; that is why the capture of cucumbers was authorized with regulations.”

The question that remained in the air was why quotas were not established for each fisherman, in order to avoid a competition for the increasingly scarce sea cucumbers and so that the fishermen themselves do not suffer mishaps.

Screenshot of the Galapagos National Park fishing calendar 20-21

The PNG stressed that cucumbers can be fished in authorized sites on the islands of Española, Fernandina, Floreana, Isabela, San Cristóbal and Santa Cruz. In addition, the cucumber seedbed located in Canal Bolívar (between the Isabela and Fernandina islands) will remain closed. In addition, it was indicated that the sale of cucumbers will only be through authorized merchants. On this point, the fishermen ask that this measure be reviewed, since with more traders, the price paid to fishermen can be improved.

A social and environmental bill

Fishing or harvesting sea cucumbers in Galapagos can be compared to the gold rush in the Wild West. Practically all the fishermen went out of their way to pull cucumbers like gold nuggets from the seabed.

Since 1999, when the capture of holothurians was formalized, the fishery has escalated until 2015. The activity has been carried out since the 90s on the islands, to the point that, in 1994, they found illegal cucumbers in the house of a Galapagos deputy.

The 900 fishermen became compressor divers, submerged and collecting cucumbers from the seabed, earning a thousand dollars a day. The pangas were equipped to carry an air compressor, a generator and dozens of meters of hoses. Stoves were installed on land or on barges to cook and then salt the captured sea cucumbers.

This activity generated 3.5 million dollars in 1999; by 2000 the amount almost tripled and nine million dollars were generated, with just one dollar paid per sea cucumber. The cucumber fishing boom increased until 2005; in 2006, an attempt was made to make a ban, but it was not until 2015 when it was possible to stop the collection of holothurians.

But this bonanza had an environmental and social cost. Diving accidents were frequent among fishermen, their dives as deep as 20 or 30 meters and sometimes they did not respect the procedure to surface without performing an adequate decompression. Hyperbaric chambers were installed in Puerto Ayora to save the lives of the fishermen, but all the effort was worth the profits.

The environmental cost is shown in the decline of sea cucumber populations. In the early fisheries, catch quotas were expressed in millions of cucumbers; by 2021 they are 600,000. There are no more cucumbers on the islands.

A fisherman who asked to keep his name in reserve states that “all that money that was generated during 15 years, from the sale of sea cucumbers, for the most part was not well invested. The wives of some fellow fishermen complained about luxury expenses, rare and expensive liquors, a lot of prostitution … A few put the money in other activities, improved their boats or bought land.”

Who benefits from the sale of cucumbers?

Screenshot of the interview conducted via Zoom with the Minister of the Environment.

Each sea cucumber dish sells for between $50 and $70 in China and is considered a luxury snack that requires a long process of hydration and cooking to prepare. But to get to the upscale kitchens of Asia, you have to cross the ocean and [the product passes through] multiple hands between local merchants, middlemen, and exporters.

Only a small fraction of the money produced by the sale of sea cucumbers remains on the islands. An average of 80 dollars is paid for a kilo of holothurians; while Asia the value is between 1000 and 1200 dollars. For this year, the fishermen ask that the price of cucumbers be increased over the 5 dollars that was paid in 2015, which would yield an amount of three million dollars.

By comparison, the intermediaries earn approximately a thousand dollars per kilogram of cucumber. This high profit means that to ensure its sale, Asian merchants grant advances to fishermen and thus ensure they receive the the catches from the fishermen.

Minister Manrique told Bitácora Ambiental that in the matter of exports, it is the intermediary who takes the greatest profit, who lived it firsthand when he was a fruit exporter who “gave instructions to the Galapagos National Park to improve conditions for sale to fishermen.” However, the topic was not expanded upon, nor was it said how it would accomplish this.

Ecuador’s natural resources serve to enrich a few Asian merchants. In addition, control tasks require more economic resources to pay for fuel, personnel and other necessary inputs that are assumed by the Galapagos National Park; in the past, monitoring the sea cucumber season cost the State more than 200,000 Dollars. In the end, the fishermen hope to obtain at least 3 million dollars without paying taxes or fees to the National Park.

Read the original coverage from Bitacora Ambiental at https://www.bitacoraec.com/post/los-pepinos-de-mar-en-gal%C3%A1pagos-solo-enriquecen-a-los-intermediarios-chinos


Informing and sharing news on marine life, flora, fauna and conservation in the Galápagos Islands since 2017
© SOS Galápagos, 2021

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