THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: Sea cucumbers, which are crucial to the ecosystem of Indian waters, have been subjected to illegal harvest and at least 101.40 tonnes of the marine species were found in illicit wildlife trade in India during 2010-2021 period, a new report said.
The report "In Deep Waters: India's sea cucumbers in illegal wildlife trade" found that demand for sea cucumbers in East Asian and Southeast Asian markets, along with the ease of harvest and low processing costs (drying), are proving detrimental to the species and their survival in India.
It was released on Thursday ahead of World Fisheries Day on November 21, 2022, a day dedicated to highlighting the critical importance of healthy ocean ecosystems and the need to ensure sustainable fisheries stocks.
The report prepared by TRAFFIC and WWF-India looked into the reasons behind the unsustainable sea cucumber trade.
The study covered 12 years (2010-2021) of seizure information from the Union Territory of Andaman and the Nicobar Islands, Lakshadweep, and the coastal state of Tamil Nadu.
"A total of 163 seizure cases were recorded for sea cucumbers from 2010 to 2021, which amounted to 101.40 t and 6976 individuals. The seized consignments consisted of live (11 seizures, 46 pieces, and 1.46 t), and dead individuals (110 seizures, 6,917 pieces, and 65.89 t)", the report said.
The species are protected under strict legal provisions, yet the Holothurian populations in India have been subjected to illegal harvest.
"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 their habitats in India", it said.
According to the study, Tamil Nadu recorded the highest number of sea cucumber seizures in India.
Till 2014, the number of reported seizures declined in Tamil Nadu and then showed an upward trend till 2017, again decreasing till 2021.
However, in 45 seizures, data was insufficient to conclude if the sea cucumbers were dead or alive.
Three seizures had both live and dead sea cucumbers for which their weight and numbers were included separately in their respective categories, it said.
Across the 12-year period, the highest number of seizures (27) were reported in 2017 from Tamil Nadu.
The highest quantity (37.3 tonnes) of sea cucumber seized was in 2015, including a single largest seizure of 14 tonnes.
The year 2020 reported the highest number of individuals (sea cucumbers) seized (2324).
Dr Merwyn Fernandes, Coordinator, TRAFFIC's India Office and author of the report said the study found that maximum seizures (139) were reported from Tamil Nadu, followed by 15 seizures in Lakshadweep, four in Andaman and Nicobar Islands, two in Karnataka, and one each in Manipur and Kerala, while one seizure occurred mid-sea.
The report looked into the reasons behind the unsustainable sea cucumber trade and found that demand for sea cucumbers in East Asian and Southeast Asian markets, along with the ease of harvest and low processing costs (drying), are proving detrimental to the species and their survival in India.
According to the seizure reports, Sri Lanka, China, and Southeast Asia were the top three destinations for sea cucumbers trafficked from India.
Nearly 1,400 species of sea cucumbers are reported worldwide, while in India, approximately 200 species have been reported from the shallow waters, dwelling in their preferred habitats of seagrass meadows, coral reefs, rocky shores, sandy shores, and mudflats.
Within India, sea cucumbers have been reported from the Union Territory of Andaman and Nicobar and Lakshadweep; Gulf of Mannar, Palk Bay, and Ennore in Tamil Nadu; Gulf of Kutch in Gujarat; Malvan coast in Maharashtra; and Kakinada Bay in Andhra Pradesh.
The new report also provides action points to help curb the illegal sea cucumber trade in India, including a detailed recommendation on future research priorities, enhancing capacity for interdiction by law enforcement agencies, devising policies and promoting community engagement and awareness.
Ravi Singh, Secretary General & CEO of WWF-India, stressed the need to strengthen the protection and conservation of sea cucumbers in India.
He said adequate measures to curb trafficking and illegal trade of the species through timely enforcement action is necessary.
"It is also equally important to raise awareness about the legal and conservation status of sea cucumbers among the fisheries through targeted campaigns in local languages."
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 seawater's alkalinity, buffering the ocean's acidification.