The search for Mexico’s sea cucumbers

We travelled to the Yucatán peninsula to see how Chinese demand has endangered sea cucumbers, species with a vital ecological function

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Mexico sea cucumbers

Sea cucumbers clean the ocean floor but populations have been decimated by fishers capitalising on Chinese demand (image: Alamy)

The Yucatan peninsula has banned the harvest of sea cucumbers this year. This video asks how local fishers have been affected and what the future holds for this once-common sea creature.

Behind the story

The sea cucumber first came to my attention while doing research on the vaquita, a species of porpoise that is facing extinction in the Gulf of California due to Chinese demand for the totoaba swim bladder, also known as fish maw. Chinese merchants buy these bladders at exorbitant prices, and the vaquita are killed when they become entangled in the fishing nets set to catch the totoaba. There are thought to be less than 20 vaquitas left in the wild.

But now the sea cucumber, several species of which are also found in Mexican waters, is facing a similar fate. Sold to Chinese and Asian consumers at high prices for use in traditional medicine and cuisine, the sea cucumber has started to disappear – but it isn’t receiving anywhere near the same attention as the vaquita.

I initially wanted to make a video that would raise awareness about the sea cucumber, which has the crucial function of cleaning the ocean floor. I tried to time my visit to Yucatan to coincide with the sea cucumber-harvesting season. But a fisherman explained that local authorities had decided to close the season this year to allow populations to recover. The situation was critical.

This became the story: I wanted to understand how Yucatan fishermen have been impacted by the ban on sea cucumber-harvesting.

I found that if people in Yucatan loved anything more than the sea cucumber, it was talking about it. They described how Chinese demand had created a sea cucumber “gold rush”. It brought in more money than any of the fishers had ever seen – people were able to invest in their houses or buy better boats. But the gold rush also brought prostitution and alcohol. It broke up marriages and some people even died diving for the animal. And then the sea cucumber – once so abundant that fishers were harvesting tonnes every day – became so scarce, it was hard to find any at all.

Alicia Poot, a biologist who has been following developments closely, hopes that numbers will recover. She says that many communities want to find more sustainable ways to fish, but illegal diving continues, and internal corruption in Mexico fuels a black market.

What’s become clear to me is that when Chinese buyers throw huge sums of money into extracting resources in low-income areas with little regulation, it creates an illegal trade that disrupts both local communities and natural ecosystems. Now more than ever, it’s important for journalists, civil society and governments to understand the implication of this loss of biodiversity and be able to anticipate further events that stem from Chinese demand.

Production credits

Directed and edited by Alejandra Cuéllar

Filmed by Antonia Colodro

Copyright notice

This video is released under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial licence. Should you wish to share or make use of it, please respect the terms of this licence.

For a free copy please contact us: multimedia@chinadialogue.net. A clipreel of the footage is also available on request.