East Africa: Sea cucumber smuggling in East Africa threatens livelihoods and ecosystems

Coordinating laws in the Western Indian Ocean region is an essential first step towards protecting sea cucumbers.

The high demand for sea cucumbers in China is driving their overexploitation along the East African coast. This has potentially devastating consequences for locals, who use them for food and a living; and for sensitive marine biodiversity.

Sea cucumbers are tough-skinned marine animals, found mostly on the ocean floor. The Western Indian Ocean, which borders countries along the eastern and southern coast of Africa, is home to the fifth largest population of sea cucumbers in the world. This is according to a report published by the Western Indian Ocean Marine Science Association (WIOMSA).

In coastal areas of East Africa such as Kwale, Pemba and Zanzibar, local fishermen have depended on sea cucumbers as a source of food and family income for generations. These creatures are part of the local diet of this region and coastal communities trade in them to supplement their income.

Sea cucumbers from the East African coast are increasingly being smuggled into Hong Kong, where they are used to produce drugs to treat joint pain, impotence and fatigue, notes a 2020 TRAFFIC report. TRAFFIC is an international non-governmental organization that campaigns against the illegal trade in wildlife and plants. In 2019, a passenger traveling from South Africa to China via Nairobi was arrested at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport with dried sea cucumbers in his checked baggage.

High demand for sea cucumbers in China is driving their overharvesting along the East African coast

In Zanzibar, 1 kg of sea cucumber sells for between US$9 and US$40, depending on species and size. After export to China or Hong Kong, 1 kg is worth up to 300 US dollars. Between 2012 and 2018, Hong Kong imported 3.8 million kilograms (3,800 tonnes) of sea cucumbers from Africa.

Inconsistent legislation across East Africa has allowed the over-harvesting of sea cucumbers, which the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora has listed since 2019.

In 2003, the Kenyan government banned the use of scuba diving equipment in sea cucumber fishing. However, the ban was never enforced, leading to their further exploitation along the Kenyan coast. In 2006, the Tanzanian government banned the trade of sea cucumbers on its continent. However, the trade continued in Zanzibar, says the TRAFFIC report. This selective criminality aims to protect sea cucumbers intended for local consumption, threatened by its marketing and export.

The report also notes the increased overexploitation of sea cucumbers in mainland Tanzania and coastal Kenya. This was confirmed by Juma Anton, a Kenyan sea cucumber trader, who told ENACT that overfishing has led to his 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 motor boats used for deep sea fishing.

Local fishermen have relied on sea cucumbers as a source of food and household income for generations

Roselyn Mwakio, a fisheries officer based in Shimoni in Kwale County, told ENACT about the value chain that facilitates the overexploitation of sea cucumbers along the East African coast. Local coastal families harvest the animals in shallow waters or by deep-sea fishing. The harvested sea cucumber is sold to the first level of local middlemen.

These middlemen sell the sea cucumbers either to local processors who live in the main coastal towns of Mombasa, Zanzibar or Malindi, or to a second tier of middlemen who operate close to the main ports. The second tier of middlemen then sell directly to international markets through East African ports such as Mombasa.

Sea cucumbers play a vital role in the marine ecosystem by recycling nutrients and breaking down other organic matter that allows biodegradation. They have been described as the “vacuumers of the ocean” – they eat dead plant and animal matter, then expel cleaner, oxygenated sand. Therefore, their overexploitation by intensive fishing that produces high volumes for export could lead to reduced resilience of coastal ecosystems and increase the effects of climate change, the WIOMSA report states.

Smuggling of dry sea cucumbers from the western Indian Ocean is also increasingly linked to illegal trade in other endangered species such as pangolin scales and seahorses.

Smuggling of sea cucumbers has potentially devastating consequences for sensitive marine biodiversity

Coordinating laws in the Western Indian Ocean region is an essential first step towards protecting sea cucumbers. Building the capacity of law enforcement and fisheries officers, especially in ports and airports, could help strengthen surveillance and identification of smuggled dried sea cucumbers. This would facilitate reporting by maritime security agencies and community marine conservation groups, helping to uncover links to illegal trade in other endangered flora and fauna along the East African coast.

Research into the creature’s protection shows that designation of its breeding grounds, such as the Kisite Mpunguti Marine Protected Area along the Kenyan coast, has helped regenerate sea cucumber populations.

Using this research to highlight these positive measures and call for their expansion along the coasts of eastern and southern Africa would complement law enforcement and environmental protection efforts.

Willis Okumu, Principal Investigator, East Africa, ENACT Project, ISS Nairobi

This article was first published by ENACT.