Over 100 tonnes sea cucumbers, which are crucial for marine ecosystems, seized in illegal wildlife trade from 2010-21, says report

Demand for sea cucumbers in east Asian and Southeast Asian markets, along with the ease of harvest and low processing costs, is proving to be detrimental to the species and its survival in its habitats in India

November 17, 2022 07:36 pm | Updated 07:36 pm IST - Kolkata

Representational file image of processed sea cucumber seized at Vedalai in Tamil Nadu.

Representational file image of processed sea cucumber seized at Vedalai in Tamil Nadu. | Photo Credit: L. Balachandar

A recent study on illegal wildlife trade of sea cucumbers by TRAFFIC and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) India has revealed that 101.40 tonnes, that is, 6,976 sea cucumber individuals were seized from 2010-2021. During the 12-year period, a total of 163 seizures were recorded, of which a maximum of 139 seizures were reported from Tamil Nadu, which accounts for 85% of all the sea cucumber seizures. Tamil Nadu was followed by 15 seizures in Lakshadweep, four in Andaman and Nicobar Islands, two in Karnataka, and one each in Manipur and Kerala, respectively. According to the seizure reports, Sri Lanka, China, and Southeast Asia were the top three destinations for sea cucumbers trafficked from India.

Sea cucumbers are marine animals and belong to Class Holothuroidea of Phylum Echinodermata. Benthic in nature, sea cucumbers are distributed across the seas, and demand for sea cucumbers in east Asian and Southeast Asian markets, along with the ease of harvest and low processing costs (drying), is proving to be detrimental to the species and its survival in its habitats in India.

The report titled ‘In Deep Waters: India’s Sea Cucumbers in Illegal Wildlife Trade’ was published on Thursday. “According to the seizure reports, Sri Lanka, China, and Southeast Asia were the top three destinations for sea cucumbers trafficked from India,” the study said.

A press statement issued on the report said that sea cucumbers are crucial to the marine ecosystem as they consume decomposing organic matter and convert it into recyclable nutrients for other marine life. In addition, feeding and excretion by sea cucumbers increase sea water’s alkalinity, buffering the ocean’s acidification, the statement added.

“It is also equally important to raise awareness about the legal and conservation status of sea cucumbers among fisheries through targeted campaigns in local languages,” Ravi Singh, secretary general and CEO of WWF-India, said.

In India, approximately 200 sea cucumber species are found, all of which are protected under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 against collection, trade or any form of utilisation. Two species of sea cucumber found in Indian waters — Holothuria fuscogilva and H. nobilis — are also listed in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) since 2020, which regulates their international trade.

Merwyn Fernandes, coordinator, TRAFFIC’s India Office and author of the report, said that despite the strict legal provisions, the Holothurian populations in India have been subjected to illegal harvest. “TRAFFIC and WWF-India’s study indicates an ongoing trend in illicit sea cucumber trade from India to neighbouring countries. With limited information about its population status, the trade could have a detrimental impact on the species’ future,” Dr. Fernandes said.

The report highlighting the temporal patterns of seizure indicates that across the 12-year period, the highest numbers of seizures (27) were reported in 2017 from Tamil Nadu. “Till 2014, the number of reported seizures declined in Tamil Nadu and then showed an upward trend till 2017, again decreasing till 2021,” the report said.

Source sites (locations from where sea cucumbers were sourced) were mentioned in only 24% of seizure incidences or 38 seizures. “Of the mentioned source sites, 71% were in Tamil Nadu, 18% were in Lakshadweep, and the rest were from Andaman and Nicobar Islands,” the report said.

In Tamil Nadu, Devipattinam was reported as a sea cucumber-rich site by 35.5% of fishers, followed by Dhanushkodi (15.5%), Rameswaram (13%), whereas in Andaman and Nicobar Islands, 27% of fishers said that Rutland Island was a major sea cucumber-rich area from where the trade chain starts.

The study calls for research in terms of species identification and use of molecular studies in research and monitoring. “As Sri Lanka is reported to trade with sea cucumbers, this has increased the level of pressure on their population within the Indian waters. It would be pertinent to initiate molecular level studies to understand if the populations can be differentiated across the countries, as many species of sea cucumbers are common across both countries.” the report said.

The document recommends enhancing capacities as well as cooperation across law enforcement agencies.

“The Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) has this precise mandate, hence, it is suggested that a dedicated unit is to be set up, comprising officers from all relevant LEAs such as District Office, Forest, Fisheries, Police, Customs, Department of Revenue Intelligence, Indian Coast Guard, Indian Navy and WCCB to monitor and coordinate efforts to curb illegal fishing near the coastal areas in the region,” the report added.

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