Coastal communities threatened by demand for sea cucumbers

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Coastal communities threatened by demand for sea cucumbers

May 30, 2017 - 19:21
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Rising demand for a globally sought-after seafood delicacy has led to some coastal communities struggling to cope with its social and ecological impacts, according to a new study.

A sea cucumber in Federated States of Micronesia, Chuuk. Taken in late September 2006.

In the past, sea cucumber was not something that was typically harvested. However, as more people started to acquire a taste for it—in addition to the fact that it can sell for hundreds or thousands of dollars per pound—fisheries for it rapidly emerged in coastal communities around the world.

This brought in money, buyers and fishers from outside the community, and also piled on pressure on these vulnerable communities, which are already experiencing challenges such as declines in traditional fish stocks, population increases, illegal fishing and climate change.

Nathan Bennett, a postdoctoral fellow at UBC, said, “What makes these fisheries so tricky is that they appear rapidly and often deplete local resources just as rapidly, leaving communities with little time to recover.”

A recent paper in the Global Environmental Change examines the impact of this demand for sea cucumber has on Rios Lagartos, a fishing community on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula.

It has relied on small-scale commercial fishing as its main livelihood for the past 50 years. After issuing its first commercial sea cucumber permits in 2013, it faced a new set of challenges.

“Resource management, incomes, fisher health and safety, levels of social conflict and social cohesion in the community are all impacted. The potential financial rewards are also causing local fishers to take bigger risks as sea cucumber stocks are depleted and diving must occur further from shore, with dire health consequences,” said lead author Mary Kaplan-Hallam, who conducted the research as a master's student with the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at UBC.

Unfortunately, the situation in Rios Lagartos isn’t an isolated one, nor is sea cucumber the only “motivation”. Examples of other delicacies undermining local sustainability include abalone, sea urchins and sharks.

According to Bennett, who has also co-authored the paper, “If we want to sustainably manage fisheries with coastal communities, we need a better understanding of how global seafood markets impact communities and how to manage these impacts quickly. Think of it like an epidemic: it requires a rapid response before it gets out of control.”

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