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"The sea cucumber can be finished": they warn about the overfishing of this species in Mexico


Soft and slimy to the touch, the sea cucumber removes excess organic matter from the seabed. Its indiscriminate fishing has put it in danger: "Although it has not disappeared, its population has greatly decreased," says a researcher.

By Albinson Linares, Valeria León and Carmen Montiel

PROGRESO, Yucatán.— Ricardo Domínguez Cano looked at the intense blue of the Yucatecan sea and pointed out things that only he could see.

As if he were an intrepid explorer, his finger drew strips, sectors and zones where the exuberant oceanic fauna moves and reproduces, as if they were the streets and avenues of a great city in dark colors.

"We were born on the coast of Progreso, so we are used to the abundance of resources. The sea cucumber was not something special, until the prices began to rise a lot," explains the 47-year-old fisherman in an interview with Noticias Telemundo .

In this coastal area of ​​southeastern Mexico, fishing for species such as snapper, grouper, octopus and lobster is a traditional activity that used to be passed down from father to son.

In the case of the Domínguez family, there are already three generations dedicated to fishing.

David Domínguez Cano, fisherman and diver off the coast of Progreso, Yucatán, on April 28, 2022.Noticias Telemundo

For David Domínguez Cano, brother of Ricardo and a diver by profession, it is easy to see the madness for sea cucumber when looking at the figures: at the beginning, in the year 2000, only two or three boats were dedicated to fishing this marine species with official development permits.

In 2006, 42 boats extracted some 154 tons and, by 2013, commercial fishing permits were issued, with which more than 550 boats raised the exploitation to exorbitant levels:

2,486 tons, according

to official figures


"You worked in an area for months, but when the number of boats increased, you could only work for two days and it was over. That's the problem because many people started fishing," explains Domínguez, the diver.

Researcher Cuauhtémoc Ruiz Pineda measuring a sea cucumber off the coast of Progreso, Yucatán, on April 28, 2022.Noticias Telemundo

As with other endangered species, such as the totoaba in Mexico, the main reason for the indiscriminate fishing of cucumbers lies in an economic factor.

Larger and better processed specimens fetch high prices on the Asian market:

a kilo can cost $600 to $3,500

or more in Hong Kong and other cities in China.

Due to intense overfishing, the populations of this animal declined so much in Yucatan that its permanent ban was decreed since 2013. And the necessary number of specimens has not yet been recovered to allow fishing activities.

They don't care if the species ends"


"Many people came from other states and settled in Yucatan for the cucumber. And they continued fishing even though the ban was on (...) they don't care that the marine species are finished. The sea cucumber can be finished," said Ricardo Domínguez with sadness in the voice.  

chinese appetite

Sea cucumbers are invertebrate animals that live in various substrates on the seabed such as rocks, dead corals, algae, seagrasses or sediments.

Their elongated and thick shape means that at first glance they are compared to the vegetable that gives them their name, but they are also known as sea cucumbers.

Soft and slimy to the touch, with some spicules depending on the variety, they perform important environmental services because they eliminate excess organic matter, recycle, remineralize and oxygenate the seabed.

"It's like cleaning the bottom of the sea, it eats all the organic detritus that is in the sand and leaves it clean. This allows various species to coexist, without sea cucumber it changes the ocean floor and the abundance of fauna is threatened ", explains Cuauhtémoc Ruiz Pineda, a researcher at the National Fisheries Institute (Inapesca) who is in charge of the constant monitoring of these animals.

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Sea cucumbers are characterized by their low mobility and form "patches" with large numbers of specimens that, under normal conditions, can be easily collected, which makes fishing easy in areas where they are still abundant.

"Although it hasn't disappeared, its population has decreased a lot and that affects fishing because we can't lift the ban,"

says Ruiz Pineda.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has estimated that more than 215,000 tons of sea cucumbers were caught between 2013 and 2017 globally.

Of that figure, around 7,800 tons were caught in Mexico.

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Despite the ban, the FAO detected that in 2020 almost 1,600 tons of sea cucumber were fished in Mexico.

According to official data, in Yucatan there is a population of 16,274 fishermen and 3,974 active boats, however, it is estimated that the number of people who do not respect the restrictions of protected species such as sea cucumber could be much higher.

In the sea cucumber trade, the main product is its dried body wall and the rest of the animal, such as its viscera or gonads, is discarded.

That part is known as 'bêche-de-mer', 'trepang' or 'haishen' and only represents a small fraction of its live weight, so

the cucumber is subjected to various processes to dry it.

"The sea cucumber began to gain relevance as other resources began to diminish (...) then Chinese businessmen came who encouraged the interest of local fishermen to extract it when they saw the great value it has," explains Alicia Virginia Poot Salazar, a biologist and representative of Inapesca in Yucatan.

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Once dry, the body wall of the specimens is reconstituted with a slow-cooked boil and consumed in sauces or soups.

In traditional Asian medicine from countries like China, it is believed that it helps treat the symptoms of diseases such as arthritis and that it has aphrodisiac properties. 

The cartels also fish

According to data from the Mexican Government, 100% of the fishing is exported, mainly to the Asian market (Hong Kong and other Chinese cities) and the United States ranks second.

The Center for Biological Diversity has denounced that the import of sea cucumber to US territory has increased up to 36 times in the last decade, for which it has requested that it be protected under the Endangered Species Act.

In Baja California and the Yucatan Peninsula,

illegal fishing has been an ongoing problem

that has prompted amendments to the penal code to expand the ability of regulatory agencies and police to crack down on smuggling.

"There is no one to regulate or stop those who are dedicated to poaching, that's why they take cucumbers (...) Unfortunately, people to acquire this resource fall into these illegalities, that is the real phenomenon, that is what happens ", explains Ricardo Dominguez. 

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Organizations such as the Environmental Defense Fund have developed research that shows that illegal fishing has exceeded the official national production by percentages ranging from 45 to 90%.

In March, an academic investigation revealed that, between 2011 and 2021, Mexican and US authorities seized more than 100.6 metric tons of sea cucumbers,

with an estimated value of $29.5 million,

a figure that only represents the illicit activities that were detected by the authorities and the media.

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

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The study covers more than a decade of media coverage of crimes related to smuggling and poaching of sea cucumbers in Mexico, and analyzes 97 incidents that

produced 125 arrests, with an average of 1,037 kilos of sea cucumbers

that were seized in each detention.

The researchers also specify that the most trafficked species are Isostichopus fuscus (29 incidents), followed by Isostichopus badionotus (12 seizures), Holothuria floridana (6 incidents) and Holothuria mexicana (3 seizures).

"In Yucatan, the sea cucumber fishery collapsed and is now closed, but excess fishing capacity and labor facilitated by investments by illegal buyers remain in many of the communities, creating problems for other species," he warns. Abigail Bennett, a Michigan State University professor and co-author of the research.

The document details a series of illegal practices that encourage the trafficking of the species such as false identification, incorrect labeling, forged declarations, manipulation of invoices and fraud as a means of laundering illegal captures.

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

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Academics like Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institution have denounced how organized crime groups have infiltrated Mexico's fisheries.

"I would say that one of the most important findings of my investigation is that it is not only about the presence of narcos from the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel in illegal fishing, but also that they seek to take over the legal business and all the stages of production and marketing to establish a monopoly," warns Felbab-Brown, in a conversation with Noticias Telemundo.

In her research entitled

China-Linked Wildlife Poaching and Trafficking in Mexico


published this year, the academic deals in detail with the issue of sea cucumber in Yucatan and states that, due to the decline in populations of this species,

poaching only produces a small crop

that organized crime groups buy from local fishermen to sell to Chinese middlemen.

Another of the modus operandi implemented by the cartels in Yucatan is the night assault.

They point guns at you to take everything away from you"


"Suddenly some strange boats appear that pretend to fish during the day, near where we are, and at night they take the opportunity to approach and point guns at you to take away all the product you took out. They take everything from you, sometimes even the motors and your papers to know where you live so that we don't report it," says fearful Juan, a veteran Yucatecan fisherman who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals.

[“We are dying of thirst”: the Mexican people of the Cucapá fight against climate change and oblivion]

Traffic to the US

U.S. authorities frequently detain people associated with the smuggling of sea cucumbers, as was the case of Claudia Castillo, a Mexican citizen who was sentenced to eight months in prison 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. 

Tijuana resident John Jaimes Torres was sentenced to six months in prison and ordered to pay $10,000 to Mexican authorities for attempting to smuggle 300 pounds of cucumber from Mexico into the United States in his truck at the Otay Mesa port of entry in November 2019. News articles noted that

the value of the sea cucumbers he was transporting exceeded $60,000.

It also highlights the case of César Daleo, a former Border Patrol agent, who received simultaneous 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 is believed to have been the leader of a larger network, which was being investigated and monitored by authorities.

Between 2014 and 2016, and on at least 80 occasions, Daleo paid someone else to smuggle bags of dried sea cucumber from Mexico to the United States.

It is estimated that the shipments were valued at $250,000.

Special mention deserves the case of the Mayorquin family.

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

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

Academic research led by Teale N. Phelps Bondaroff states that a common feature in all of 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 low compared to the penalties imposed on the smuggling of other illicit goods.

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die for fishing

In order for sea cucumber fishing to be reactivated on the Yucatecan coast, there must be at least 70 specimens per hectare.

But, despite the ban, that number has not yet been reached.

Intense overexploitation has also reduced the ability of the species to reproduce, which has led academic researchers to dedicate themselves to studying the fertilization process in captivity in order to try to repopulate the natural habitats of the sea cucumber.

"With the fishing boom, the breeding banks where all the breeders were accumulated were decimated, the reproductive capacity of the species was reduced and it is currently very difficult to find good specimens," explains Professor Miguel Ángel Olvera Novoa, scientific manager of the marine station of the Center for Research and Advanced Studies in Yucatan.

Olvera Novoa and his team took 14 years to achieve assisted reproduction of this species.

However, much remains to be investigated.

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"Our main objective is to try to produce juveniles to restore populations and try to recover species that were subjected to irrational exploitation," says the scientist.

Another consequence of excessive fishing is the notable scarcity of specimens, which means that

those who are dedicated to fishing must dive at great depths and in less explored areas.

Many of these fishermen are at risk of decompression sickness because they are not well prepared or do not have the necessary equipment to make the mandatory stops to adjust their bodies to the pressure changes experienced when climbing the surface.

"Cucumber began to be scarce and people began to get hurt, some fainted, others came with injuries, their knees were damaged. Some were even disabled. In a season of 15-20 days there was a daily death, it was very ugly" , recalls David Domínguez Cano.

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From 2012 to 2014, 468 injuries and 26 deaths from decompression sickness were reported in the Yucatan Peninsula, between 2014 and 2016 166 cases were recorded and by 2021 only 10 cases were detected, according to data compiled by the Phelps Bondaroff investigation.

Despite the scarcity, closed seasons and security problems, for fishermen like Domínguez Cano, the sea is their only destination.

They cannot conceive of living without navigating the infinite range of blues or immersing themselves in the abyssal darkness.

"We live from this and we are not going to finish it, but the people who only come to make money are not interested in keeping it. We have to take care of everything, that is our main problem," he says while looking at the infinite ocean of Yucatan.

Source: telemundo

All news articles on 2022-07-15

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