THE ALLURE OF THE SEA CUCUMBER

Sri Lanka has been involved in the lucrative trade of bêche-de-mer for centuries. However, rising demand from East and Southeast Asian markets poses a threat to sustainability

The humble sea cucumber is certainly an odd-looking creature. This is reflected in the names given to it by various cultures. In English, it is sometimes called the sea slug, and in Sinhala, sea leech (muhudu kudella). The Portuguese called it bicho do mar, which literally means “sea worm.” However, not all cultures have given it names that sound derogatory. The Chinese call it hai shen, which roughly means “ginseng of the sea”; and for this honour they consume it in large quantities!

The Chinese have a long history of including sea cucumbers in their cuisine. In the processed and dried form called bêche-de-mer, they go into the making of soups, stews and other important dishes. So great is the demand for them in China and other East and Southeast Asian markets that their stocks have been depleted in many fisheries around the world.

Our island has been involved in the trade of bêche-de-mer for several centuries. Unappealing to the Sri Lankan eye, there are no reports of these creatures ever being consumed here; however, they are freely harvested and processed for export.

The country is said to have had a well-established sea cucumber fishery in the past. English zoologist James Hornell (1917) stated that processed sea cucumbers appear to be one of the commodities taken to China during the last thousand years; this was a time when trade existed between southern India, Sri Lanka and China. A top colonial official, Sir James Emerson Tennent (1859) noted that they were largely collected in the Gulf of Mannar and dried in the sun to prepare them for export to China.

According to Lala Adithiya (1969), Arab and Chinese merchants employed the local inhabitants of maritime regions to gather and cure sea cucumbers for them. He also refers to the “direct descendants of the early Arab sea-farers” who “yet roam the seas, in their frail sailing canoes, with Tamil fisherfolk for divers, gathering the lazy seas slugs and curing them as their grandfathers and great-grandfathers did years and years ago.”

Sea cucumbers are commonly found in the shallow coastal waters of the northwestern, northern and eastern regions. These soft-bodied, slow-moving animals live on the sea floor and are easy pickings for men who wade or dive in. In deeper waters, they are collected by skin divers and scuba divers who dive from traditional oru or motorized boats.

After being harvested, the creatures are gutted, boiled, salted and dried, turning them into bêche-demer. The product is then sent to East and Southeast Asian markets including China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan. In China, it is considered a delicacy and served in various dishes at important dinners and banquets. The Chinese also believe that it has certain medicinal properties – as a disease preventive, sexual rejuvenator and longevity tonic.

Sri Lanka’s waters have many commercially valuable species of sea cucumber. They provide a livelihood for thousands of families. However, high prices, accessibility and the ease with which they are harvested have led to overfishing and declining stocks, posing a threat to sustainability.

In fact, this is a serious problem across the globe. The rising demand, especially from an increasingly affluent China, has led to the depletion of sea cucumber stocks in many countries, and even the collapse of fisheries. This has been particularly evident in the southwestern Pacific, where most of the world’s bêche-de-mer comes from. Many fisheries in the islands of Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and Papua New Guinea have been ruined.

The high prices fetched by top-grade sea cucumbers have sharply reduced their numbers. In Sri Lanka, high-value species have been overfished, first in the shallow waters and then in deeper sea. However, despite scant catches, people continue to harvest them; this affects their ability to reproduce and repopulate the fishery. When stocks are drastically depleted, other commercially valuable species are targeted until they too suffer the same fate.

This is a classic example of what psychologists call the social trap. It happens when a group of people seek short-term individual gains, leading to a loss for the group as a whole in the long run.

Sea cucumbers are an important source of income for coastal communities globally. With overfishing threatening their livelihoods, several countries have imposed regulations to save stocks. These include moratoriums, legal size limits, total allowable catches and restrictions on gear. However, enforcement remains a problem.

There was a time when these creatures were abundant in Sri Lanka’s shallow coastal waters. Things have changed since. Even collapses of fisheries due to overexploitation have been reported. Customs data have revealed sharp rises and drops in quantities exported. These fluctuations were probably due to the discovery of new sea cucumber beds and the rapid depletion that followed.

There have even been reports of such collapses resulting in Sri Lankan fishermen and divers going to distant places seeking sea cucumbers. These include the Chagos Archipelago, the Laccadive Islands and the Andaman Islands. This is an illegal activity and has led to several arrests in Chagos.

Sea cucumbers are big business today. Though unappealing to our eyes, they are craved by tongues from the affluent lands to the east. With this demand comes the risk of overfishing and depletion, threatening an age-old trade. Bêche-de-mer is a profitable commodity. It’s time we curbed the ongoing plunder and adapted sustainable management plans. May the humble sea cucumber thrive in our waters for the benefit of future generations!

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SEA CUCUMBER FACTS & TRIVIA

The humble sea cucumber features in everything from food and medicine to literature and music!

MEDICINE

According to Chinese folklore, the sea cucumber has aphrodisiac qualities. It has been said that this is because it looks like the phallus and defends itself from aggressors in a manner similar to ejaculation by stiffening and spurting a jet of water.

Researchers have discovered that sea cucumbers have wound-healing, anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties. They also have a very high protein content.

According to traditional Chinese medicine, the sea cucumber nourishes the blood and vital essence (jing). It is also believed to treat everything from kidney disorders and joint pain to frequent urination, impotence and debility of the aged.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has stated that there is an emerging market for the use of sea cucumbers in the pharmaceutical, nutriceutical and cosmetic industries.

ART

The famous American writer Edgar Allan Poe’s only complete novel – The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838) – gives a detailed description of sea cucumbers. The book has influenced great writers ranging from Jules Verne and Herman Melville to Henry James and Arthur Conan Doyle.

The creatures have inspired numerous haiku in Japan. The book Rise, Ye Sea Slugs! by Robin D. Gill contains nearly a thousand haiku on sea cucumbers translated into English. The Japanese call them namako, written in characters that translate to “sea mice.”

The first part of the influential French composer Erik Satie’s piano composition Embryons desséchés concentrates on the so-called “purring” of the sea cucumber.

FOOD

The Japanese consume these creatures raw in the form of sashimi or sunomono. They also eat their intestines and dried ovaries.

A famous traditional Chinese dish called ‘Eight immortals crossing the sea gamboling around the Arhat” includes sea cucumbers, shark’s fin and shrimp, among other things.

ECOLOGY

These creatures play an important role in the marine ecosystem. They feed on detritus and clean the ocean floor. They also help recycle nutrients. They have been compared to earthworms and called the “vacuum cleaners of the sea.” It has been reported that their digestive processes may help buffer dying corals against ocean acidification.