PHOTO: What they look like. Here is what sea cucumbers look like.
What are they? Well, there are over one thousand different types of sea cucumbers around the world. They are related to star fishes and sea urchins and are essential to healthy reefs. Sea cucumbers act like swimming pool vacuum cleaners, but on a much larger scale in the ocean. Sea cucumbers feed on microscopic organisms, which they sense and sweep up from the seabed with frondlike tentacles that branch out from the mouth. Many sea cucumbers also ingest mud and sand and, in a manner similar to that of earthworms, absorb the organic matter, egest the waste from the cloaca, and leave castings (Encarta 2004). Long story short, sea cucumbers filter and clean the water. Without it, water becomes cloudy and coral life dies.
The issue in Tonga: OVERHARVESTING due to the commercialization of sea cucumbers. There is a very high demand of sea cucumbers from the Asian markets. As a result, Asian countries, like China, pay big bucks for these animal creatures exported from Tonga. Therefore, fishermen collect sea cucumbers for a quick source of income. However, the environmental impacts are tremendous. During the sea cucumber season in Tonga, boat loads of sea cucumber come into processing plants before being shipped out. Fishermen can easily make $1000 to $3000 TOP per boat load. It is a very lucrative industry, but not sustainable or best for the future. The harvesting of sea cucumbers was actually banned in Tonga for ten years (97-07), because numbers of several sea cucumber species were reduced dramatically.
PHOTOS: One of the sea cucumber processing sites. Hundreds of sea cucumbers collected from one night. The Chinese buying the sea cucumbers. Lovely…
I was able to visit one of the sea cucumber processing facilities in Vava’u. I can only describe it as a form of ethnic cleansing towards sea cucumbers. I was sickened at the amount of sea cucumbers being unloaded from each boat. The Chinese suppliers, inspected and paid money to the Tongan fishermen. Just imagine people killing whales, sharks, dolphins, and turtles and turning in the carcass at a collection depot, that was how I felt watching the entire event. Yes, all those atrocities also occur all over the world. Who is to blame though? Each country has the right to do whatever they want within their territories. Should we look into more international environmental protection? Where is GREEN PEACE when you need them? Give more money towards key Ministries such as Fisheries or Environment to protect certain species? Corruption? blah blah blah. Just another frustration working in a country like Tonga. In the end, who knows what will happen. If a certain threshold is passed with overharvesting, then the extinction of numerous sea cucumbers is forthcoming and the consequences will have devastating effects. I have an idea…STOP eating them and that goes towards shark fin soup and also other “delicacies.”