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Growing sea cucumber demand threatening coastal communities

"What makes these fisheries so tricky is that they appear rapidly and often deplete local resources just as rapidly," said researcher Nathan Bennett.

By Brooks Hays
Growing sea cucumber demand threatening coastal communities
Sea cucumbers are an increasingly popular seafood delicacy, especially in Asia. Photo by Alex Hearn/Charles Darwin Fund/European Pressphoto Agency

May 30 (UPI) -- The growing popularity of sea cucumbers as a seafood delicacy is a problem. According to new research, the overnight growth of local sea cucumber fisheries pose a serious threat to the health of coastal communities.

"For many coastal communities, sea cucumber isn't something that was harvested in the past. Fisheries emerged rapidly. Money, buyers and fishers from outside the community flooded in," Maery Kaplan-Hallam, an environmental scientist at the University of British Columbia, said in a news release. "This has also increased pressure on other already overfished resources."

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Both human and animal communities can adapt to gradual change, but rapid disruptions are more problematic.

"What makes these fisheries so tricky is that they appear rapidly and often deplete local resources just as rapidly, leaving communities with little time to recover," said Nathan Bennett, a postdoctoral researcher at UBC.

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To gauge the impact of a sea cucumber "gold rush," researchers set their sites on Río Lagartos, a fishing community on Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula. The town has been home to small-scale commercial fishing for more than 50 years, but its sea cucumber fishery is just a few years old.

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The rush of profiteers to the small community presented a variety of problems, researchers found.

"Resource management, incomes, fisher health and safety, levels of social conflict and social cohesion in the community are all impacted," says Kaplan-Hallam. "The potential financial rewards are also causing local fishers to take bigger risks as sea cucumber stocks are depleted and diving must occur further from shore, with dire health consequences."

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Researchers say the phenomenon isn't new. Similar sprints to capitalize on new seafood markets -- often reaction to growing demand in Asia -- have troubled vulnerable coastal communities all over the world.

"There are many examples around the world where elite global seafood markets -- abalone, sea urchins, sharks, aquaculture -- are undermining local sustainability," said Bennett.

The latest findings -- detailed in the journal Global Environmental Change -- reveal the impacts of consumers on people and places on the other side of the world.

"Think of it like an epidemic: it requires a rapid response before it gets out of control," Bennett said.

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