THOOTHUKUDI: Over 64.73 tonnes of banned sea cucumber have been seized by Indian and Sri Lankan government authorities in the Gulf of Mannar and Palk strait over the past five years, reveals a recent study on analysis of media reports and government press releases.
Although the efforts of the government agencies on thwarting smuggling of sea cucumbers are appreciable in protected areas, the smuggling of the endangered species could be prevented only with a joint operation committees of the two countries, observed Wildlife Institute of India (WII) Scientist F Dr Sivakumar.
According to sources, among an odd 1700 species of sea cucumbers found in the world, over 200 are found in Indian waters. While the Gulf of Mannar Marine Biosphere and Palk Bay is home to roughly 39 species of sea cucumber, over 24 species of sea cucumbers are found in Sri Lankan waters.
With the measures to curb excessive harvesting of sea cucumbers effected by the union government back in 1982 did not yield results, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) enforced a blanket ban in 2001 on all species of holothurians and declared as protected animals under Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972.
On the other hand, the Sri Lankan government had permitted fishing of sea cucumbers for the license holders, which was reduced to 25 per cent in 2016 following concerns on sharp decline of its population.
The difference in laws in the neighbouring countries has come in handy for the smugglers as well as the countries in close proximity, which flourished by exporting processed sea cucumbers through Sri Lanka to the overseas markets in Southeast Asian countries.
Several sources said that the sea cucumbers are not consumed in India or in Sri Lanka, but it is largely exported to Hong Kong, Singapore and Chinese markets. The sea cucumber is used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), and also it's a predominantly luxury seafood item.
A researcher Dr Teale Phelps Bondaroff, in his research article published in a journal Beche-de-mer Information Bulletin had compiled the sea cucumber crimes foiled by both India and Sri Lanka government authorities in the Gulf of Mannar and Palk Strait between 2015 and 2020. The author had analysed the prevention of the crimes based on the media reports and press statements issued by both the governments.
The analysis revealed that the two nations sharing the International waters in Gulf of Mannar and Palk Bay had registered 120 cases and arrested 502 smugglers in the past five years, with the seizure of 64,733 kilogramme (64.73 tonnes) of sea cucumber including 40,433 kgs by Indian authorities and the remaining 24,300 kgs by Sri Lankan authorities.
In all, it is estimated that at least 1,04,531 sea cucumber individuals both wet and dry were seized, and are together worth USD 2.84 million.The average size of a seizure was 543.98 kgs per incident as some of the incidents are of big consignments.
Of the 120 cases, India had registered 48 cases against sea cucumber smugglers, while Sri Lanka had registered 72 cases and the arrest of 502 smugglers includes 421 in Sri Lanka and 81 in India, the analysis said.
The study concluded that the sea cucumber crime is organised and transnational in nature, and that the monitoring and enforcements shall be expanded by stepping up inter-governmental and interagency cooperation.
Dr Teale Phelps Bondaroff, also the Director of Research, OceansAsia, a Hong Kong based marine conservation organisation, told The New Indian Express that the illegal smuggling routes are traced to remote island chains while mapping the crime occurring places. Protecting the threatened species of sea cucumbers, the earthworms of the seas, from poaching help to keep our marine ecosystems healthy, he said.
He said that further joint action committee from the two countries would help deter the organised criminal gangs from engaging in wildlife crime that is devastating our oceans in a myriad of ways.
However, Gulf of Mannar forest officials in Thoothukudi range expressed discontentment on even a cooperation between police and the forest officials, to reduce the sea cucumber poaching cases.
The accused are the same in most of the cases, and they could not take severe actions as many are caught by law and order police, even though the Gulf of Mannar forest officials are responsible to take the accused to the courts for prosecution.
"The law and order police arrest the smuggler and seize the species without intimating us and provide a feeble report about the accused, which paves way for the smugglers to escape stringent actions", said the official seeking anonymity.
For instance, when 300 kilogramme of sea cucumber were seized recently, the police gave a written statement to us that only 30 kilogramme were confiscated, said another official.
Speaking to The New Indian Express, senior scientist Sivakumar appreciated the seizure of 64.7 tonnes of sea cucumbers in the past five years, however, the removal of sea cucumbers continues in the unprotected areas.
He thanked the forest officials for being vigilant in the protected areas such as the Gulf of Mannar and Palk strait. Currently the sea cucumbers are only available in protected areas, as several tonnes of sea cucumbers had been smuggled away from other areas, he said.
Sivakumar added that the sea cucumbers are highly important for the sea ecosystem as they scavenge on the dead animals and wastes to keep the sea bed clean which ultimately help improve the health of corals and seagrass meadows that are the prime location for fish breeding. "These species should be protected so that commercially important fishes breed well and support the livelihoods of fishermen communities", he said.
The sea cucumbers are equivalent to elephants and tigers, as they are protected under schedule 1 of the concerned Act, and poaching attracts as much as 7 years imprisonment. However, none of the smugglers have been given severe punishments till now, he observed. A joint cooperation committee can be helpful to curb illegal poaching of sea cucumbers, since the crime beingtransnational, he insisted.