Cuauhtemoc Ruiz Pineda researcher measures sea cucumbers off Progreso, Yucatan, on April 28.

In the waters off Mexico, fishing for this vital marine creature is prohibited. It still happens.

PROGRISO, Mexico – Ricardo Dominguez Cano gazed into the thick blue sea of ​​the Yucatan Peninsula as he recalled a different era, before a vital marine animal was endangered.

“The sea cucumber was nothing special, until the prices started to go up a lot,” Cano, 47, told Noticias Telemundo. Then many other people came [Mexican] States and settled in Yucatan for the option. And they continued hunting despite the ban.”

The fisherman of the third generation said sadly: “The sea cucumber can be finished.”

Local fishermen, conservationists, scientists and scientists are sounding the alarm about the dwindling numbers of these marine animals known to “clean the sea floor,” according to Cuauhtemoc Ruiz Pineda, a researcher at the National Institute of Fisheries (Inapesca), who is responsible for monitoring these animals.

But it is in demand, especially in Asia. Due to extensive overfishing, the number of sea cucumbers has greatly decreased in Yucatan as far as Mexico Banned fishing in 2013.

sea ​​cucumber numbers You haven’t recovered yet Enough to allow fishing activities to resume, but it still does: According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), nearly 1,600 tons of sea cucumbers were caught in Mexico in 2020.

According to data from the Mexican government, 100% of sea cucumbers are exported, mainly to the Asian market – Hong Kong and other Chinese cities – and secondly to the United States

The Center for Biological Diversity has deplored that the import of sea cucumbers into the United States has increased by 36 times In the past decade, the Request It is protected under the Endangered Species Act.

The Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that More than 215,000 Tons of sea cucumbers were caught from 2013 to 2017 globally. Of this number, about 7,800 tons were caught in Mexico.

As with other endangered species, such as the totoaba in Mexico, the main reason for the indiscriminate hunting of cucumbers is economic. Larger and better processed samples fetch high prices in the Asian market: a kilo can cost $600 to $3,500 or more in Hong Kong and other Chinese cities.

Cuauhtemoc Ruiz Pineda researcher measures sea cucumbers off Progreso, Yucatan, on April 28.Telemundo News

All over the world, appetite for it

Sea cucumbers are invertebrates that live in rocks, seaweeds, or algae on the sea floor. Soft and sticky to the touch, they play an important ecological role – they eat all the organic residues in the sand and leave it clean, allowing various species to coexist and recycle, remineralize and oxygenate the sea floor.

“Without sea cucumbers, the ocean floor changes,” said Ruiz Pineda.

In the sea cucumber trade, the main product is the dried body wall, which is reconstituted by boiling braised and consumed in sauces or soups. In traditional Asian medicine, it is believed to help treat symptoms of diseases such as arthritis and have aphrodisiac properties.

“Chinese businessmen came to Mexico and encouraged local fishermen to extract it when they saw its great value,” said Alicia Virginia Bute-Salazar, a biologist and representative of Inapesca in Yucatan.

As the cartels hunt,

in March , Investigation It found that from 2011 to 2021, Mexican and US authorities seized more than 100.6 metric tons of sea cucumbers, with an estimated value of $29.5 million.

Thiel said Phelps Bondaroff, the lead author of the research, in an article titled recent interview.

The document details a series of illegal practices that encourage trafficking of the species, such as false identification, incorrect labeling, fraudulent advertising, bill tampering and fraud as a means of laundering illegal catches.

Although the Mexican government implemented various measures such as seasonal restrictions, quotas, closed seasons and surveillance, the investigation found that the authorities could not control the extensive trafficking of the species and documented the corruption schemes of local authorities and the use of clandestine facilities to process cucumbers.

Academics such as Vanda Philbab Brown of the Brookings Institution have investigated how organized crime groups infiltrate 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 drugs from the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel in poaching, but also that they seek to take over the legal business and all the production and marketing stages of the establishment,” said Philipp Brown. monopoly.”

In her research entitledIllegal wildlife hunting and trafficking in Mexicoyou wrote that due to the decline in species numbers, poaching is only producing a small crop that organized crime groups buy from local fishermen to sell to Chinese middlemen.

Low penalties for smuggling?

US authorities frequently detain people linked to sea cucumber smuggling, as was the case for Claudia Castillo, a Mexican national who was sentenced to: Eight months in prison It was ordered to pay $12,000 in compensation to the Mexican government for smuggling sea cucumbers from Mexico to San Ysidro, California, in 2018 and 2019.

It also highlights the case of Cesar Dalio, a former Border Patrol agent, who received concurrent sentences of 30 and 24 months, respectively, for his role in the 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 the authorities. From 2014 to 2016, and on at least 80 occasions, Daleo paid someone else to smuggle bags of dried sea cucumbers from Mexico to the United States. Estimates put the value of the shipments at $250,000.

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

However, the mayor received no time in prison, and only had to pay $973,490 in fines, $237,879 for confiscated property, and $40,000 in compensation to the Mexican government.

Research by Bondarov indicates that the common feature in all of these incidents is the “discrepancy between the value of the smuggled goods and the fines and damages imposed”.

As with many wildlife crimes, the fines and penalties are less than the value of the seized goods, and are low compared to the penalties for smuggling other illegal goods.

A risky life for fishing

In order to revitalize the fishing of sea cucumbers on the Yucatan coast, there should be at least 70 specimens per hectare – about two and a half acres. But despite the ban, this number has not yet been reached.

Severe overexploitation has also reduced the species’ ability to reproduce, prompting academic researchers to study how to reproduce them.

“With the fishing boom, the breeding banks where all the breeders have been hoarded, the reproductive capacity of the species has decreased, and it is currently very difficult to find good specimens,” said Miguel Angel Olvera Novoa, scientific director of the marine station, the Center for Advanced Research and Studies in Yucatan.

It took Olvera Novoa and his team 14 years to achieve the assisted reproduction of this species. However, there is still much to be investigated.

“Our main goal is to try to reproduce events to repopulate and try to recover species that have been irrationally exploited,” the scientist said.

Another consequence of overfishing is that fishermen must dive to great depths in less explored areas to find the remaining sea cucumbers.

Many of these hunters are at risk of developing decompression sickness because they are not well prepared to go to great depths and do not have the equipment to adjust their bodies to the pressure changes that occur when climbing the surface.

Cucumbers started getting scarcer and people started getting hurt. Some fainted, others were injured, and their knees were damaged. Some have even been disabled. “In a season of 15 to 20 days, there were daily deaths, it was very ugly,” said David Dominguez Cano, diver and brother of Ricardo Dominguez Cano. However, these types of deaths have decreased in recent years.

For families like Domínguez Cano, the sea is their livelihood and home where they hope to preserve marine animals and their environment.

“We live off this and we are not going to exhaust it,” he said, speaking of the area’s ecology and marine life as he stared into the waters. But people who only come to make money don’t care about keeping it. We have to take care of everything, that’s our main problem.”

An earlier version of this story was first published in Noticias Telemundo.

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