Río Lagartos, Yucatán — In this coastal town, there are hardly any sea cucumbers left to collect this year.
A detailed report in the New York Times explores Yucatán’s complicated relationship with the sea cucumber, a relative of the starfish and sea urchin, which the reporter says “isn’t much more than a blob creeping across the ocean floor on tentacle-feet, munching on algae and plankton.”
But the unglamorous species has become so sought-after that the local populations of two species — Isostichopus badionotus and Holothuria floridana — have collapsed.
In the two-week fishing season last April, divers in this town hauled in 14 metric tons of sea cucumber — a sharp drop from the 260 metric tons harvested four years ago.
The decline is largely the result of overfishing driven by high demand in Asia, where dried sea cucumbers are eaten as a delicacy and can sell for more than $300 a pound. Sea cucumbers are said to deter muscle aging, boost the immune system, and treat fatigue and arthritis.
At least 16 species of sea cucumber worldwide are now threatened with extinction because of intense harvesting, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Another seven are endangered, and nine are vulnerable
“This creature went from being just a worm on the seafloor that these divers totally ignored to being something that they called ‘black gold’ within the span of a couple of years,” said Abigail Bennett, an assistant professor of fisheries and wildlife at Michigan State University and co-author of an article about the sea cucumber trade in the journal World Development.
Experts trace sea cucumber exploitation in the Yucatán to around 2012, when hundreds of fishermen realized the value of the catch in Asia. With air compressors made from six-horsepower motors and beer kegs, divers began scouring the ocean floor for sea cucumbers.
Diving for them is risky. At least 40 divers from coastal communities in the Yucatán have died after ascending to the surface too quickly or staying on the seafloor too long while harvesting sea cucumbers.
Hundreds of others have been treated for decompression sickness — “the bends” — and other injuries related to the sea cucumber harvest.
“I attended to one and then another and another,” said Dr. Juan Tec, who works at the public hospital in Tizimín.