Rodrigues Sea Cucumber Plunder



By Alain L'évêque


Following an impassioned hue and cry about sea cucumber harvesting, resident environmentalists on the Indian Ocean Island of Rodrigues, citing overexploitation, petitioned for a moratorium. But, neither the stonewalling regional government nor the strangely muted opposition seem keen to rock the fishermen's boat..


A simple search of the sea cucumber trade around the world brings to light a murky business, steeped in kickbacks, poaching, corruption and black marketeering. It looks as if there's more to these little sea slugs (holothurians) than meets the eye.

Fossils of these soft-bodied, sausage-shaped marine invertebrates date back 400 million years. Today, 1400 distinct species exist worldwide, and 29 of them live in the shallow waters of Rodrigues 240 sq km lagoon. Here, holothuria atra or bambara-nwar is the dominant species. These worm-like scavengers suck up sediments on the warm sea floor, feed on its organic matter, and redeposit sand in a more aerated form; in this way, natures own living-breathing little pool cleaners continually turn over the sand's top layers. And, in this tight, yet fragile ecological balance, their eggs, larvae and juveniles provide food for molluscs, crustaceans and fish. Experts in Rodrigues warn that heavy exploitation of sea cucumbers will turn the sand into a black anaerobic mud, giving rise to a black-mud lagoon empty of animal and plant life. What's more, a combination of this animal's late sexual maturity, limited mobility and dependence on population density to reproduce, makes its recovery from exploitation extremely difficult. Rehabilitation takes decades and, even then, original numbers are rarely restored.


Consumed as a delicacy or an aphrodisiac


As the world's sea cucumber numbers dwindle, and demand from Asia increases, the market value of bêche-de-mer, as its processed form is called, enters the realm of some serious money. It's consumed as a delicacy, taken as an aphrodisiac, or used in traditional medicine for its anti-inflammatory agents. Since the eighties, trade in bêche-de-mer has been brisk and lucrative. In Hong Kong or Singapore, a low value product can generate (U$10) 280 Rupees a kg, while a high grade one can fetch up to (U$50) 1400 rupees a kg. International Traders get slightly less, exporters lesser still, and Rodriguan fishermen get – less than 3 Rupees a kg – or 100 Rupees for a 40 kg tin. At that cold-blooded price, the entire yearly 60-ton-quota (illegal trade excluded) collectively earns the fishermen 150,000 Rupees. Or, when divvied up among hundreds of them – chicken feed. The figures don't jell. Let's recap: chronic damage to the lagoon's bionetwork and the life of millions of animals snuffed out – for less than the price of a cheap bottle of whisky each. The stench is unmistakable.


Here's the odd thing. If, Rodriguans were stuck with this state sanctioned looting, what was so inconceivable with a cooperative of the local fishermen processing and exporting their own catch? Oh, and I have mentioned that this wasn't a contract to build stealth bombers? Here, no high technology, sophisticated fishing techniques, or huge capital outlays were needed; the whole process entailed picking up sea cucumbers at low tide, gutting, boiling, and drying them in the sun. Once dried,

bêche-de-mer keeps for years. So, in a seller's market, how hard can it be to pack them in a container and offload them to a trader in Singapore or Taiwan? How does handing out free licences to six outside companies, to blow-in and bleed a limited resource dry, line their pockets and take off once it's all gone, benefit the people of Rodrigues? Frankly, it's wacky logic. Remember the pre-election promises to encourage small Rodriguan entrepreneurs? Remember all the talk of economic independence? What happened? Hmm, we get it. To talk the talk is one thing; walking the talk afterwards is a monstrously different other. Hopefully, this is not indicative of things to come, otherwise, our people may well be holding out the rice bowl for the next thousand years.


Can Rodrigues enforce the unenforceable?


Size limitations and quotas, though well-meaning, are token measures which seldom stem stock depletion. The sea cucumber's plasticity, alive or cooked, makes it tricky to determine its actual size, besides, who is on hand to measure? Since our fishermen do not keep logs, who actually records the allowable catch? Are records always accurate? Could animals collected in the lagoon be delivered to foreign vessels anchored outside the reef? By its very nature, it is difficult to establish the volume of the unreported black-market trade. And another thing, if illegal fishermen can plunder sea cucumbers, day and night, around most islands of the British Indian Ocean Territory and the Torres Strait, under the noses of British and Australian authorities; if poachers in the Seychelles can use the former police commissioner's boat to pillage these animals; if the fisheries inspector entrusted with Galapagos's quotas is himself  carted off the island, in handcuffs, what makes us think that Rodrigues can suddenly enforce the unenforceable? Has Fisheries recently recruited King Canute?


At the end of the day, no matter how neatly pseudo-scientific reports dovetail with the interests of those who commission them, harvesting wild sea cucumbers can only ever be a fly-by-night operation. Comoros, Tanzania, Somalia, Tonga, Galapagos, and Madagascar know this from experience. Truth is, there is no sustainable harvesting anywhere in the world. Stocks simply do not recuperate. That's why India banned commercial harvesting of these animals. The bottom line is Rodrigues would do well to follow suit – before it's too late.


In spite of the culture of deception and spin, it is nose-bleedingly obvious that there is n-o-t-h-i-n-g in this for the people of Rodrigues. Then, why are these animals and an ecosystem that has taken ages and ages to evolve, being pushed to the brink of total collapse? And more pointedly, for whose benefit?









  June 26, 2008