Clandestine trade in sea cucumbers on Indian coast

Under water, under siege
Times of India 29 Jul 07;

Of all the brightly coloured fish and plants in the sea, the unlikeliest of creatures has given the fishing industry down South a multi-million dollar business. The slug-like sea cucumber — or Beche-de-Mer as its processed form is called — has sparked off a thriving clandestine trade all along the Ramanathpuram-Tuticorin coast.

So why is the sea mafia scraping the bottom of Gulf of Mannar — India's only Marine National Park?

Sea cucumbers or holothurians (kadal attai in Tamil), slugs found on the sea bed along coral reefs, are in great demand in countries like China, Japan and Malaysia where they are prized as aphrodisiacs and for their medicinal value. Despite the fact that India has banned commercial exploitation of the slug — Amendment (2002) of Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972 — illegal exports continue due to the high price ($110 for a kg) it commands in the international market.

The costliest available sea cucumbers in the Gulf of Mannar and Palk Bay are Holothuria scabra (sand fish or vella (white) attai in Tamil). There are also the Holothuria atra (lolly fish or karuppu (black) attai) and the Stichopus hermanni (warty sea cucumber or pavaikya (bitter gourd) attai). The fishermen sell each cucumber for Rs 10 to Rs 100, depending on the species and size, to processing agents who number around 500. After processing, Beche-de-Mer is sold to traders. A 20 count per kg of scabra fetches an agent Rs 3,000-3,500, 40 counts per kg Rs 1,000-1,500 and for anything above 40 counts, price is negotiable. Traders, of course, get a much higher rate in the international market.

So lucrative is the trade that the Tatas recently purchased a hatchery in Lakshadweep's Agathi Island, with government sanction, to culture and export sea cucumber.

But it is the clandestine trade — with alleged LTTE links — that's reaching alarming proportions. Labelled 'dried fish', sea cucumbers are packed in containers and sent through returning Lankan refugee boats from Rameswaram or smuggled via Tuticorin coast. Though India was the first to ban sea cucumber fishing in the region, neighbouring Sri Lanka and Mauritius have no such ban. “Boats bringing refugees from Sri Lanka return with the 'attai'. Single motor boats carry about two tons while double engine boats can carry as much as five-six tons. From Lanka, the haul is taken to Singapore which is the wholesale market. The peak season is December to March," said a fisherman in Mandapam, one of the processing centres.

On July 10, there was a seizure in Rameswaram and about 100 kg sea cucumbers were seized. Three persons were caught but the group leader got away.

Beche-de-Mer is a cottage industry comprising fishermen, processors (middlemen/agents) and traders (mafia). There have even been instances of officials being assaulted while trying to prevent fishing and export of sea cucumber.

"When it comes to their trade, they will stop at nothing," says V Naganathan, eco-development officer of the Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve Trust (GOMBRT) whose efforts to check smuggling resulted in the conviction of kingpin Villayutham (known as Villa) last October. But Villa managed to get bail and today, his territory reportedly extends from Rameswaram to Periyapattinam.

And with the forest department under-staffed — one guard patrols 5 sq km — personnel either ignore or assist in the illegal activities, say sources. The mafia, meanwhile, continues to feed a growing appetite for these sea slugs.