The high demand for sea cucumbers in China is leading to their over-exploitation along the East African coast. This has potentially devastating consequences for locals, who use them for food and to make a living; and for the sensitive marine biodiversity.
Sea cucumbers are marine animals with leathery skin, mostly found on the ocean floor. The Western Indian Ocean, which borders countries along the East and Southern African coast, is home to the fifth-largest population of sea cucumbers in the world. In East African coastal areas such as Kwale, Pemba and Zanzibar, local fisherfolk have relied on sea cucumbers as a source of food and household revenue for generations. These creatures form part of the local diet in this region, and coastal communities trade in them to supplement their incomes.
Over-exploitation of sea cucumbers along the East African coast is driven by the high demand for dry seafood and medicine ingredients in Asia, and facilitated by inconsistent protective legislation across East African countries. Sea cucumbers from the East African coast are increasingly smuggled into Hong Kong where they are used to produce medicine to treat joint pains, impotence and fatigue. In 2019, a passenger travelling from South Africa to China via Nairobi was arrested at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport with dry sea cucumbers in his checked-in bag.
In Zanzibar, 1 kg of sea cucumber fetches between US$9 and US$40, depending on the species and size. After exportation to China or Hong Kong, 1 kg is worth up to $300. Between 2012 and 2018, Hong Kong imported 3.8 million kilograms (3 800 tonnes) of sea cucumber from Africa.
Inconsistent legislation across East Africa has allowed the over-exploitation of sea cucumbers, which have been listed in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) since 2019. In 2003, the Kenyan government banned the use of scuba diving equipment in sea cucumber fishing. However, the ban has never been enforced, leading to their further exploitation along the Kenyan coast. In 2006, Tanzania’s government banned the trade in sea cucumbers on its mainland. However, the trade has continued in Zanzibar. This selective criminality aims to protect sea cucumbers for local consumption, which is threatened by its commercialisation and export.
In 2020 a report by TRAFFIC, an international non-governmental organisation that campaigns against the illegal trade in wildlife and plants, noted the increased over-exploitation of sea cucumbers in mainland Tanzania and coastal Kenya. This was confirmed by Juma Anton, a Kenyan sea cucumber dealer, who told ENACT that over-fishing had led to its depletion along the East African coast. This has forced Kenyan and Tanzanian fishermen to use increasingly sophisticated methods such as scuba diving equipment, special techniques and motorised boats used in deep-sea fishing.
Roselyn Mwakio, a fisheries officer based in Shimoni in Kwale County, described to ENACT the value chain that facilitates the over-exploitation of sea cucumbers along the East African coast. The animals are harvested in shallow waters or through deep-sea fishing by local coastal families. The harvested sea cucumber is sold to the first level of local middlemen.
These middlemen either sell the sea cucumbers to local processors who live in the main coastal cities of Mombasa, Zanzibar or Malindi, or to a second level of middlemen who operate close to the main ports. The second level of middlemen then sell directly to the international markets through East African ports such as Mombasa.
Ecologically, sea cucumbers perform critical roles in the marine ecosystem by recycling nutrients and breaking down other organic matter that enables biodegradation. They have been described as the ‘vacuum cleaners of the ocean’ – they eat dead plant and animal matter, and then expel cleaner, oxygenated sand. Therefore their over-exploitation through intensive fishing that yields high volumes for export could lead to the reduced resilience of coastal ecosystems and increase the effects of climate change. Dry sea cucumber smuggling from the Western Indian Ocean is also increasingly linked with illegal trading in other endangered species such as pangolin scales and sea horses.
Coordinating laws in the Western Indian Ocean region is a vital first step towards protecting sea cucumbers. Capacity building of law enforcement and fisheries officers, especially at the ports and airports, would contribute to enhanced surveillance and the identification of smuggled dry sea cucumbers. This would facilitate reporting by maritime security agencies and community-based maritime conservation groups, thus helping to expose links with the illegal trade in other endangered flora and fauna along the East African coast.
Research on the creature’s protection shows that the designation of its reproduction areas, such as the Kisite Mpunguti marine protected area along the Kenyan coast, has contributed to the regeneration of sea cucumber populations. Using this research to highlight the protection efforts and call for their expansion along the East and Southern African coastlines will complement law enforcement and environmental protection efforts.
Willis Okumu, Senior Researcher – East and Horn of Africa, ENACT Project, ISS