Courtesy of Henry Nicholls / The Conservation Business. PLoS Biol 2(9): e310. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0020310

The Galápagos Sea Cucumber, Stichopus fuscus

The potential opening of sea cucumber fishing in Galápagos has scientists and conservationists surprised  and concerned after news leaked of a July 10 agreement that would allow the collection of 500,000 of the creatures, considered vital to the marine environment.  It reignites a long dispute that has pitted fishermen against the scientific community.

Galápagos Digital

Screenshot of the agreement between the park, the government and fishermen authorizing the collection of up to 500,000 sea cucumbers

The agreement, signed by representatives of the Galápagos National Park, the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries and the Governing Council of Galápagos, hasn’t been officially announced, but according to a version circulating on the internet, it would permit fishing to begin August 1st.  Following that, there would be a 5-year moratorium on further sea cucumber collection with annual monitoring of the sea cucumber population.  If the population grows to more than 11 per 100 square meters, authorities would consider lifting the moratorium.

Here is a link to the complete document (Spanish).

The problem is that after four years of a fishing ban, official population monitoring of the sea cucumbers indicates their number is far below the minimum needed to permit any fishing. The official report shows that the number of specimens averages 6 per 100 square meters, and in the words of the report: “if the density is less than 11 per 100 square meters, the resource is in a state of collapse. It is not economically and biologically sustainable to collect them.”

Galápagos Digital

Population survey of sea cucumbers shows that they number fewer than 11 per 100 square meters in all but one location.

Every year, the Galápagos National park and fishermen measure the populations of sea cucumbers around the islands. This year’s survey shows that in most parts of Galápagos, the population is well below healthy levels.

We are providing a link to the full survey (Spanish)

Galápagos Digital has requested further information from the Ministry of Environment and the Galápagos National Park on why the agreement was signed.  We will publish the responses as we receive them.

An observer who was at the meeting told Ecuadorian journalist Isabela Ponce Ycaza that: ”It was not easy to reach that decision … it was a tense encounter.” The journalist further quoted the observer as saying:  “The representatives of the four fishing cooperatives demanded  that the Galápagos national Park permit the capture of sea cucumbers or threatened to protest.”

Fishermen, according to the report, said that because of the decline of other fisheries, they need the sea cucumbers to make a living.   The report also noted that fishermen complained that the monitoring of sea cucumbers “was not carried out with rigor.”

That point was confirmed by a fisherman who wrote to Galápagos Digital asking to remain anonymous:  “The managers of the Galápagos Marine reserve failed” (to conduct a proper survey), he wrote.

Evidently the arguments presented by the fishing guild convinced the authorities to sign the agreement to open the cucumber fishery as part of what the signed agreement calls “a process of consultation and conciliation.”

The decision was not received well by members of the scientific community: “Opening the fishery now sends a message that Galápagos natural resources will be managed by political pressure, not by technical decisions,” one expert, who asked not to be identified, told Galápagos Digital.

Another scientist familiar with the matter, who also wishes to remain anonymous, said “This would deal a blow to a resource that in itself should not be exploited. Even after four years of closure, the fishery should not open even for another 15 years.”

Sea cucumbers are animals, not plants, and are distantly related to starfish and sea urchins. They play an important role in the ocean, feeding on algae and microscopic marine plants, and breaking down these foods into essential nutrients that feed other marine life. In addition, sea cucumbers contribute to the cleaning of the seabed. For these reasons, they are known as the “earthworms of the sea.”

In some parts of the world, sea cucumbers are considered a delicacy and in Southeast Asia, many believe that the creatures possess aphrodisiac qualities to improve sexual performance. That belief has encouraged overfishing of sea cucumbers leading to the decimation of populations.

In the early 1990s, Galapagos fishermen began to collect sea cucumbers from the waters around the islands to meet growing demand. Hundreds of people from mainland Ecuador, seeing an opportunity to make money, moved to Galapagos to participate in the sea cucumber “boom.”

Ecuadorian government efforts to curtail sea cucumber  fishing resulted in angry protests by fishermen in 1993 and 2000.

 In 1998, the then Ecuadorian President Jamil Mahuad signed the Special Law for Galapagos, creating the Galapagos Marine Reserve and imposing restrictions on immigration and fishing.  According to British writer Henry Nicholls: “In 1999, the first season in which fishing for sea cucumbers was controlled and regulated-about 800 fishermen collected more than 4 million specimens worth more $ 3.4 million in a short season of two months. “

Studies by conservation biologists at the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz, working in cooperation with the Galápagos National Park, found that the sea cucumber population was severely reduced as a result of overfishing. After the government halted further fishing in January of 2000, fishermen occupied the offices of the Park and the Darwin station, taking some humans and animals hostage. The protests ended peacefully but relations between fishermen and the scientific community remain tense.

Today, the Galapagos sea cucumber, Isostichopus fuscus is listed as “endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (ICUN). The “Red List” of the organization says that the population of sea cucumbers has been dramatically reduced, and states: “The area of ​​highest density known for this species, the Galapagos Islands, has had a reduction of around 80% or more . “

Galapagos National Park

Sea cucumbers seized at San Cristóbal airport in June, 2015

The area of ​​the Galapagos Marine Reserve is huge and despite constant efforts by the Galapagos National Park and the Ecuadorian Navy, it is difficult to patrol. Poachers from the mainland of Ecuador and other countries illegally catch cucumbers and other species in the reserve. As we reported in Galápagos Digital in June of this year, park officials seized 10,852 sea cucumbers at the airport of San Cristobal.  At present there is a huge black market for sea cucumbers driven by demand in China, where they are sold for $ 300 per pound.

This situation becomes more complicated as it occurs at a time of unrest in certain sectors of the islands due to  changes to the Organic Law of Special Regime for Galapagos (LOREG) approved by the National Assembly in June. Those changes led to protests in Galápagos. One change removed Participatory Management Meetings at which decisions such as opening fisheries were discussed by representatives from various sectors before being approved. “The board was not something perfect,” one Galapagueño told Galápagos Digital, “but we felt that at least we had a voice and sometimes they listened to us.”

So far there has been little official information on the matter. The procedure laid down is that once an agreement is signed, it doesn’t take legal effect before the Park management officially announces it.  That has not yet happened.

Galápagos Digital will stay on top of this story and post updates as developments occur.  Once again, the “cucumber conflict” between fishermen and conservation authorities has officials caught in a bind.