Anthony Vigrado dives into Palk Bay's waters after sunset in Jaffna, searching the seafloor for what seems to be a coveted treasure. Sea cucumbers, long, leathery-skinned beings that have been the source of his profits for the past 12 years, are what he returns with.

Sea cucumber at Pulau Mamutik/Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park
(Photo : Wikimedia Commons)

However, his catch is only a fraction of what it used to be after a 10-hour hunt, as the coasts of northern Sri Lanka and southern India have become a hotspot for exploitation.

"Illegal fishermen are crossing our boundaries in search of sea cucumbers in areas where we usually swim. The 31-year-old fisherman claims, "We're losing our money and our wealth to them."

Sea Cucumbers

The Echinoderms with smooth, tubular bodies that resemble their namesake vegetable are known as sea cucumbers. They are an uncommon species group that plays an important part in ocean environments. Their feeding also serves to delay the acidification of the seas as a result of human activities.

Increase in Demands

Fresh Sea Cucumber
(Photo : qq53536283 on Pixabay)

Sea cucumbers are highly sought after in China and Southeast Asia. They are considered a delicacy and used in traditional medicine. Some people, especially in China, mistakenly believe they are an aphrodisiac.

This has fueled a hugely profitable trade in endangered species, which has rapidly expanded in recent decades. Sea cucumbers used to sell for less than £50 per kilo; today, they sell for more than £200 per kilo, with rarer species fetching more than £2,500 per kilo.

Related Article: Deadly Crustaceans: Xanthidaes Among the Most Poisonous Crabs in the World

Overfishing and Exploitation

River Pollution from Plastic Fishing Gear Threatens Ganges River Wildlife
(Photo : Wikimedia Commons )

Overfishing of sea cucumbers has occurred in Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar over the years. Global stocks of the most valuable plants have decreased by more than 60%.

"Populations are declining due to overfishing. It affects biodiversity, and it also affects the livelihood of the coastal fishers who depend on this activity," says a zoology lecturer. Illegal boats destroy the equipment of local fishers to catch the sea cucumbers, Vigrado says.

The majority of recorded illegal activity takes advantage of regulatory differences between neighboring countries. Though Sri Lanka issues fishing licenses and allows sea cucumber exports, India has banned all sea cucumber trade since 2001.

International Actions

Braised Sea Cucumber with Pork
(Photo : Wikimedia Commons)

As a result, illegal sea cucumbers are either seized in India and smuggled into Sri Lanka. They are lawfully shipped to Southeast Asia or exported from India under false labeling.

In August, three men were apprehended in August smuggling nearly 1,000 kilograms of sea cucumber from Tamil Nadu to Sri Lanka. The illegal trade is infiltrating previously unexplored territory. Sri Lankan and Indian authorities have been attempting to tackle this maritime activity. Despite the surge in convictions and seizures, new cases are now on the rise.

Global Organized Crime

Sailing Ship Makes Records as the Largest Ocean Clean-up in History
(Photo : Pixabay)\

Sea cucumber demand has resulted in unrest in Mexico, yakuza activity in Japan, and smuggling. Organized sea cucumber crime moves farther afield from Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar, into the Lakshadweep union territory's underdeveloped regions.

However, since most illegal trade is still imported into Sri Lanka, Kuppusamy admits that, while disrupting the criminal supply chain is critical, educating illegal sea cucumber fishermen about the value of the animals is also essential to their safety.

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