Demand from China drives disastrous overfishing of sea cucumbers

FERN’s latest story, in collaboration with National Geographic, takes readers inside the world of the illegal sea-cucumber trade, showing how demand for the delicacy in China is driving a global market that threatens to wipe out many species of the marine animal.

There are some 1,700 species of sea cucumber, but only about 80 are edible. They are echinoderms, along with urchins and sea stars, and are more or less sedentary, leaving them vulnerable to poaching.

“Sea cucumbers are nutrient factories, rich in protein and complex organic compounds,” writes Kimon De Greef. “They have ‘a primordial ecological role,’ said Hakima Zidane, a marine biologist at the national fisheries research institute. ‘They’re like a purifying species for the ocean.’ ”

“[T]he creatures spend their lives inhaling salt water and expelling clear liquid and sediment,” De Greef reports. “In many areas, their depletion has led to murkier or more polluted coastal waters. In coral reef habitats, where they buffer the effects of ocean acidification, their loss has made catastrophic bleaching events a graver threat.”

“The soft-bodied creatures, which range in length from less than an inch to three feet and in color from dull brown to flamboyant red, have been popular in China since the Ming dynasty in the mid-1300s. Known as haishen— roughly ‘ginseng of the sea’ — at first they were considered medicinal, their phallic resemblance thought to imbue them with power to combat impotence and fatigue. Later they came to be regarded as one of the four marine treasures of Cantonese cuisine, alongside shark’s fin, abalone, and the swim bladders of certain fish, such as the totoaba. A soup containing all four ingredients is known as ‘Buddha jumps over the wall’ (its bouquet, the story goes, was enticing enough to tempt a vegetarian monk) and can cost more than $500 a serving.”