In the waters off Mexico, fishing for this vital sea creature is prohibited. It’s still ongoing.

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PROGRESO, Mexico — Ricardo Domínguez Cano gazed up at the intense blue sea of ​​the Yucatán Peninsula as he remembered another time, before a vital marine animal was in danger.

“Sea cucumber was not something special, until the prices started to increase a lot,” Cano, 47, told Noticias Telemundo. “Many people then came from other [Mexican] United States and moved to Yucatán for cucumber. And they continued to fish, despite the ban.”

“The sea cucumber might be finished,” the third-generation fisherman said sadly.

Local fishermen, conservationists, scientists and academics are sounding the alarm over the dwindling numbers of these marine animals known to “clean the bottom of the sea”, according to Cuauhtémoc Ruiz Pineda, a researcher at the National Institute of peaches (Inapesca), which is in charge of monitoring these animals.

But there is a demand for them, especially in Asia. Due to severe overfishing, sea cucumber populations have declined so much in Yucatán that Mexico banned their fishing in 2013.

The number of sea cucumbers haven’t recovered yet enough to allow a resumption of fishing activities, but this is still happening: according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), nearly 1,600 tonnes of sea cucumbers were caught in Mexico in 2020 .

According to Mexican government data, 100% of sea cucumbers are exported, primarily to the Asian market – Hong Kong and other Chinese cities – and then to the United States.

The Center for Biological Diversity has denounced that the importation of sea cucumbers into the United States has increased by 36 times over the past decade, and has demand be protected under the Endangered Species Act.

The FAO has estimated that over 215,000 tons of sea cucumbers were caught from 2013 to 2017 worldwide. Of this figure, about 7,800 tons were caught in Mexico.

As with other endangered species, such as the totoaba in Mexico, the main reason for the indiscriminate harvesting of cucumbers is economic. Larger, better-processed specimens fetch high prices in the Asian market: a kilo can cost between $600 and $3,500 or more in Hong Kong and other Chinese cities.

Researcher Cuauhtémoc Ruiz Pineda measuring a sea cucumber off Progreso, Yucatán, on April 28.Telemundo News

All over the world, an appetite for it

Sea cucumbers are invertebrate animals that live in the rocks, seagrass or algae of the seabed. Soft and slimy to the touch, they play an important environmental role by eating all the organic detritus in the sand and leaving it clean, allowing various species to coexist and recycle, remineralize and oxygenate the seabed.

“Without the sea cucumber, the bottom of the ocean is changed,” Ruiz Pineda said.

In the sea cucumber trade, the main product is its dried body wall, which is reconstituted with slow boiling and eaten in sauces or soups. In traditional Asian medicine, it is believed to help treat symptoms of conditions such as arthritis and to have aphrodisiac properties.

In Mexico, “Chinese businessmen came to encourage local fishermen to extract it when they saw its great value,” said Alicia Virginia Poot Salazar, biologist and Inapesca representative in Yucatan.

Cartels are also fishing

In March, investigation found that between 2011 and 2021, authorities in Mexico and the United States seized more than 100.6 metric tons of sea cucumbers, with an estimated value of $29.5 million.

“Illegal fishing undermines conservation efforts, destroys wildlife populations and ecosystems, harms legal fishers, steals dollars from governments, undermines good governance and social order, and fuels organized crime,” said Teale N. Phelps Bondaroff, lead author of the research, in a statement. recent maintenance.

The document details a series of illegal practices that encourage the trafficking of the species, such as false identifications, incorrect labeling, misrepresentation, manipulation of invoices and fraud as a means of laundering illegal catches.

Although the Mexican government has implemented various measures such as seasonal restrictions, quotas, closed seasons and surveillance, the investigation revealed that the authorities cannot control the heavy trafficking of the species and documents the schemes corruption of local authorities and the use of clandestine facilities to process cucumbers. .

Scholars like Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institution have investigated how organized crime groups have infiltrated Mexican fisheries.

“I would say that one of the most important findings of my investigation is that it is not only the presence of narcos from the Sinaloa Cartel and the New Generation Jalisco Cartel in illegal fishing, but also that ‘they seek to take over legal trade and all stages of production and marketing to establish a monopoly,’ Felbab-Brown said.

In his research titled “Poaching and wildlife trafficking linked to China in Mexico“, she writes, due to declining populations of the species, poaching produces only a small harvest that organized crime groups buy from local fishermen to resell to Chinese middlemen.

Low penalties for smuggling?

US authorities frequently detain people associated with the smuggling of sea cucumbers, as was the case of Claudia Castillo, a Mexican citizen sentenced to eight months in jail and ordered to pay $12,000 in restitution to the Mexican government for the smuggling of sea cucumbers from Mexico to San Ysidro, California in 2018 and 2019.

It also highlights the case of César Daleo, a former Border Patrol agent, who received concurrent sentences of 30 and 24 months, respectively, for his role in sea cucumber and fentanyl smuggling operations.

Daleo worked as a border agent for 11 years and was allegedly the head of a larger ring, which was being investigated and watched by authorities. From 2014 to 2016, and on at least 80 occasions, Daleo paid someone else to smuggle bags of dried sea cucumbers from Mexico to the United States. The shipments are estimated to have been valued at $250,000.

On March 8, 2018, David Mayorquin and Ramon Torres Mayorquin, owners of a company called Blessings Inc., pleaded guilty to 26 counts to illegally import more than 128 tons of sea cucumbers from Mexico with an estimated value of $17.5 million into Southeast Asian markets.

However, the Mayorquins received no jail time and only had to pay $973,490 in fines, $237,879 in confiscated property, and $40,000 in restitution to the Mexican government.

Bondaroff’s research indicates that a common feature of all these incidents is “the discrepancy between the value of the contraband goods and the fines and restitution imposed”.

As with many wildlife crimes, the fines and penalties are less than the value of the cargo seized and are small compared to the penalties imposed for smuggling other illicit goods.

Risking lives for fishing

For the sea cucumber fishery to be reactivated on the Yucatán coast, there must be at least 70 specimens per hectare, or about two and a half acres. But despite the ban, that number has yet to be reached.

Intense overexploitation has also reduced the species’ ability to reproduce, leading university researchers to study how to repopulate them.

“With the boom in fishing, the breeding grounds where all the spawners were accumulating have been decimated, the reproductive capacity of the species has been reduced and it is currently very difficult to find good specimens,” said Miguel. Ángel Olvera Novoa, scientific manager of the marine station. from the Center for Research and Advanced Studies of Yucatan.

Olvera Novoa and her team took 14 years to achieve assisted reproduction of this species. However, much remains to be studied.

“Our main objective is to try to produce juveniles to restore populations and try to recover species that have been subjected to irrational exploitation,” the scientist said.

Another consequence of overfishing is that anglers must dive to great depths in less explored areas to find the remaining sea cucumbers.

Many of these anglers are at risk for decompression sickness because they aren’t properly prepared to go so deep and don’t have the equipment to adjust their bodies to the pressure changes experienced while ascending the surface.

“Cucumber started to get scarce and people started getting hurt. Some passed out, others came with injuries, their knees were damaged. Some were even handicapped. In a season of 15 to 20 days there was a daily death, it was very ugly”, says David Domínguez Cano, diver and brother of Ricardo Domínguez Cano. In recent years, however, these types of deaths have decreased.

For families like the Domínguez Canos, the sea is their livelihood and their home as they hope to preserve its marine animals and environment.

“We live off this and we’re not going to exhaust it,” he said, speaking of the ecology and marine life of the area as he gazes out over the water. “But people who only come to make money are not interested in keeping it. We have to take care of everything, that’s our main problem.”

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