Fishing for this vital sea creature is prohibited in the waters off Mexico. It’s still happening.

PROGRESO, Mexico — Ricardo Domínguez Cano stared out at the intensely blue seas of the Yucatán Peninsula as he reminisced about a different time before a vital marine animal was in danger.

“The sea cucumber was nothing special until prices started to rise sharply,” Cano, 47, told Noticias Telemundo. “A lot of people then came from others [Mexican] States and settled in the Yucatán because of the cucumber. And they continued to fish despite the ban.”

“The sea cucumber could be ready,” said the third-generation fisherman sadly.

According to Cuauhtémoc Ruiz Pineda, a researcher at the National Fisheries Institute (Inapesca), local fishermen, conservationists and scientists are sounding the alarm about the dwindling numbers of these marine animals known for “cleaning the seabed”. responsible for the supervision of these animals.

But there is a demand for it, especially in Asia. Due to intense overfishing, sea cucumber populations in the Yucatán declined so severely that Mexico 2013 a fishing ban for them.

The number of sea cucumbers have not recovered yet enough to allow fishing to resume, but it’s still being done: nearly 1,600 tonnes of sea cucumber were caught in Mexico in 2020, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

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

The Center for Biological Diversity has denounced the increase in imports of sea cucumbers into the US 36 times in the last ten years and has requested that it is protected under the Species Protection Act.

The FAO appreciated that more than 215,000 tons of sea cucumbers were caught worldwide from 2013 to 2017. Of this, around 7,800 tons were caught in Mexico.

As with other endangered species, such as the totoaba of Mexico, the primary reason for indiscriminate fishing for cucumbers is economic. Larger and better finished specimens fetch high prices in the Asian market: a kilo can range from $600 to $3,500 or more in Hong Kong and other Chinese cities.

Researcher Cuauhtémoc Ruiz Pineda is missing a sea cucumber off the coast of Progreso, Yucatán on April 28.
Researcher Cuauhtémoc Ruiz Pineda is missing a sea cucumber off the coast of Progreso, Yucatán on April 28.Noticias Telemundo

Everywhere in the world appetite for it

Sea cucumbers are invertebrates that live in rocks, seagrass, or algae on the sea floor. They are soft and slimy to the touch and play an important role in the environment – ​​they eat up all the organic waste that is in the sand and leave it clean, allowing different species to coexist and recycle, remineralizing and oxygenating the seabed.

“Without the sea cucumber, the seabed changes,” said Ruiz Pineda.

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

In Mexico, “Chinese businessmen who saw the great value came and encouraged local fishermen to extract it,” said Alicia Virginia Poot Salazar, a biologist and representative of Inapesca in the Yucatan.

The cartels also fish

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

“Illegal fishing undermines conservation efforts, destroys wildlife populations and ecosystems, harms legitimate fishermen, steals dollars from governments, undermines good governance and social order, and fuels organized crime,” said Teale N. Phelps Bondaroff, lead author of the study, in a last job interview.

The document describes a number of illegal practices that encourage trade in this species, such as misidentification, mistagging, forged declarations, bill manipulation, and fraud as a means of laundering illegal catches.

Although the Mexican government has implemented various measures such as seasonal restrictions, quotas, closed seasons and surveillance, the investigation found that the authorities cannot control the intensive trade in the species and documents local authorities’ corruption schemes and the use of clandestine facilities to process cucumbers .

Academics like Brookings Institution’s Vanda Felbab-Brown have studied how organized crime groups have infiltrated Mexican fisheries.

“I would say that one of the key findings of my investigation is that it is not only about the presence of new generation Sinaloa Cartel and Jalisco Cartel narcos in illegal fishing, but also that they are attempting to exploit the legal to take over the business and all phases of production and marketing to establish a monopoly,” said Felbab-Brown.

In her research entitled “Poaching and wildlife trafficking associated with China in MexicoShe wrote that due to declining species populations due to poaching, only a small crop is produced, which organized crime groups buy from local fishermen to sell to Chinese middlemen.

Low penalties for smuggling?

US authorities often arrest people linked to sea cucumber smuggling, as in the case of Claudia Castillo, a Mexican national who was convicted eight months in prison and was ordered to pay the Mexican government $12,000 in compensation for smuggling sea cucumbers from Mexico to San Ysidro, California in 2018 and 2019.

It also highlights the case of César Daleo, a former border guard who was sentenced to concurrent prison terms of 30 and 24 months, respectively, for his role in sea cucumber and fentanyl smuggling.

Daleo worked as a border guard for 11 years and is said to have been the leader of a larger network investigated and monitored by the authorities. From 2014 to 2016 and at least 80 times Daleo paid someone else to smuggle bags of dried sea cucumbers from Mexico to the United States. The shipments are estimated to be worth $250,000.

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

However, the mayors received no jail time and only had to pay $973,490 in fines, $237,879 in forfeited property, and $40,000 in restitution to the Mexican government.

According to Bondaroff’s research, a common feature of all these incidents is “the discrepancy between the value of the contraband and the fines and refunds imposed.”

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

Danger to life when fishing

In order for the sea cucumber fishery to revive along the Yucatán coast, there must be at least 70 specimens per hectare — about two and a half acres. But despite the ban, that number has not yet been reached.

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

“With the fishing boom, the breeding banks where all the breeders had gathered were decimated, the species’ reproductive capacity was reduced and it is currently very difficult to find good specimens,” said Miguel Ángel Olvera Novoa, scientific director of the Center for Marine Station Research and Advanced Studies in Yucatan.

It took Olvera Novoa and his team 14 years to achieve assisted reproduction of this species. However, much remains to be explored.

“Our main goal is to breed juveniles to restore populations and save species that have been subjected to irrational exploitation,” the scientist said.

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

Many of these fishermen are at risk of decompression sickness because they are not well prepared to go that deep and do not have the necessary equipment to adapt their bodies to the pressure changes that occur while climbing at the surface.

“Cucumbers became scarce and people started getting hurt. Some fainted, others came with injuries, their knees were damaged. Some were even disabled. In a 15 to 20 day season there was a daily death, it was very ugly,” said David Domínguez Cano, a diver and the brother of Ricardo Domínguez Cano. However, in recent years, these types of deaths have declined.

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

“We live off it and we’re not going to exploit it,” he said, speaking about the area’s ecology and marine life while gazing out at the water. “But the people who come just to make money have no interest in keeping it . We have to take care of everything, that’s our main problem.”

consequences NBC Latin on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

https://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/waters-mexico-fishing-vital-sea-creature-banned-still-happening-rcna39072 Fishing for this vital sea creature is prohibited in the waters off Mexico. It’s still happening.

Fry Electronics Team

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